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Return of Darcy Kuemper isn’t a cure-all for playoff-hopeful Coyotes

Goaltender Darcy Kuemper #35 of the Arizona Coyotes is introduced before the NHL game against the Florida Panthers at Gila River Arena on February 25, 2020 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — With the return of Darcy Kuemper, the Arizona Coyotes got back a player on Tuesday that many had been anxiously waiting for as the playoff race intensifies.

But poetically, the Coyotes lost the game 2-1 a day after head coach Rick Tocchet warned that getting back the injured goaltender — as valuable as he is — wouldn’t be a fix-all.

“It’s huge. He’s been our best player,” Tocchet said Monday. “The last year, he’s been our best player. So having him out for two, three months, it’s been tough when your best player’s out. But saying that, it’s just not all on Kuemps. We’re getting good goaltending. So that’s not the issue.”

And so, 24 hours later, the Coyotes couldn’t score more than one goal on the Florida Panthers, who give up the third-most goals per game in the NHL this year. On all accounts from players and Tocchet, the issue was simple: Arizona didn’t put up enough offense.

“We didn’t capitalize. that’s it,” Tocchet said. “We had a lot of chances, they didn’t have much. They had four or five, maybe, five-on-five chances. They didn’t have much. And we didn’t score. That’s it. That’s the game.”

According to NaturalStatTrick, the Coyotes led the Panthers in high-danger scoring chances, 16-7. This comes just three days after Arizona beat the playoff-bound Tampa Bay Lightning by a whopping score of 7-3.

“We had a nice game against Tampa, I get it, but we need consistent scoring,” Tocchet said. “We need consistent play offensively. Because the margin of error is so small with our team. They get one or two chances in the net, we need seven or eight or ten and don’t get them. It’s one of those things. So the margin is so slim that you’ve got to be real diligent, especially offensively.”

More bad news for the Coyotes: Tuesday’s out-of-town scoreboard wasn’t kind. Nashville, Calgary and Vancouver all won, and Winnipeg got a point by losing in the shootout. All of those teams are relevant to Arizona’s playoff hopes. The Coyotes were in fourth place in the Western Conference Wild Card at the end of their game. The top two spots are playoff spots.

“We should have a lot of confidence and urgency in our game right now because it’s not many games left and we’re pushing,” defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson said. “We’re still in it.”

The Coyotes have played 66 games now, which is the most in the entire NHL. Only 16 remain.

“We need to be desperate, but we also need to be confident with our game and each night that we play, we need those two points,” forward Derek Stepan said.

There’s hope in this: The Coyotes have played at a high level for big portions of this season (they formerly were in first place), and recently have exhibited that same identity once again. They’re not in a slump, but they are in a difficult position.

“I liked the start of our season, and then we had a stretch of 20 where I didn’t think that we were even close to playing the way that we needed to as a group, and I felt that we’ve kind of switched it over,” Stepan said. “We’ve started to find that game that was our identity to start the year and we’ve got to continue to do that. Because that’s the only way we’re going to win hockey games is if we play that way, with our identity.”

On Tuesday, though, the offense wasn’t there. At least for the Coyotes, this week is a light one: Arizona doesn’t play again until Saturday, and that game is at home, and then it gets three more days off before a game at Vancouver.

In the meantime, the return of Kuemper is a welcome one. But he can only do so much on his own.

THE GAME ITSELF

Arizona’s 2-1 loss to the Panthers started out with the Coyotes (31-27-8) scoring the first goal of the game when Brad Richardson lit the lamp in the closing minutes of the first period. That was his sixth of the year, assisted nicely by Vinnie Hinostroza.

After that, a Frank Vatrano goal through traffic beat Kuemper, who played well in his first game back since Dec. 19. He made 24 saves.

Across from Kuemper was Sergei Bobrovsky, who made 37 saves as Arizona out-shot Florida 38-26.

In the third period, Florida’s Jonathan Huberdeau moved the puck across the ice behind Kuemper’s net to Aleksander Barkov, and Barkov found Mike Hoffman in front for a one-timer that went in the net. That made it 2-1 Panthers, the eventual final score.

“They had their push and I don’t think we were able to respond to it,” Stepan said. “This time of year, these late games, it’s all about responses and pushes and pushes back. We weren’t able to find it.”

As for Kuemper, nothing negative to report:

“It was great to be back out there just competing with the guys. It’s been a long time watching, not the easiest. But it felt good to be back out there.”


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