Playoff push: Coyotes remember previous late-season rallies
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Thursday marks 28 years to the day that the Pittsburgh Penguins lost 8-4 to the Hartford Whalers, completing a 2-10-3 stretch for the Penguins that lasted more than a month.
A 27-year-old Rick Tocchet, now the coach of the Arizona Coyotes, had an assist for Pittsburgh in that game.
Tocchet, who had been traded to the Penguins in the previous week, was on a new team that was only .500 and in fourth place in its division despite boasting Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis and other Hall of Famers (as well as Jeff Chychrun, the father of current Coyotes defenseman Jakob Chychrun). The New York Islanders were just three points behind them in the standings, threatening Pittsburgh’s playoff chances.
“I remember just getting there and they were like close to .500. And that team was unreal on paper,” Tocchet said. “I remember they had a team meeting — I was a new guy so I kept my mouth shut, even though I was 10-year veteran — and they all said, ‘Everybody’s got to do their job. And whatever is asked of you to do.’ That’s what we’re asking now.”
There are parallels between that team and the modern-day Coyotes. Today’s Coyotes don’t necessarily boast a lineup stacked with numerous Hall of Famers, but like the ’92 Pens, Arizona is hanging on for dear life late in the season. The Coyotes were in first place at times this year.
Those Penguins successfully rallied to win 12 of their last 18 games after that loss to the Whalers, starting on Feb. 29, a leap day. They made the playoffs, and went on to sweep the Chicago Blackhawks in the final to win the Stanley Cup. This Saturday, the Coyotes play the Buffalo Sabres at home — also a leap day — the first game of 16 remaining. Arizona is currently outside of a playoff spot.
“It’s not about the individual. It’s about the team right now,” Tocchet said Wednesday. “And we have to think that way.”
Current Coyotes captain and defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson had a similar experience. The 2011-12 Phoenix Coyotes went on a five-game losing streak at the start of March and went 4-5-5 in their first 14 games of that month. On March 25, 2012, Phoenix was in seventh place in the Western Conference, and their margin for error in the division was very thin.
Phoenix closed that season with five straight wins, allowing only two goals total in that span. The Coyotes won the division and their first two playoff series before losing in the Western Conference Final.
“We won the division that year and kind of went on a run there late in the season,” Ekman-Larsson said.
“I think it was just everybody wanted to play for each other and blocking shots for each other and whatever it was. And that’s how we got a really tight group. And I feel like we have an unbelievable group here this season, too, and want to do the right thing. But at the same time, we just want that greasy win or whatever you call it to get on track. But I mean it’s 16 games left, and that can happen again.”
So what does it take for a team to go on a hot run late in the year?
“I just felt players dragged you along,” Tocchet said. “You’re in tough situations, you’ve got to make sure you do your job, but you’ve got to drag people with you. And that’s by doing the right thing. If we’re asking for more net-front, make sure you’re the guy leading the charge, and then hopefully somebody will follow you.
“I think that’s the key for us right now is we’re getting sporadic. Not saying sporadic effort, because I think guys are trying, but sporadic pushes at certain times. Every time it seems like to me the other team is making that play in the third period on a mistake we make. Where the teams are making mistakes and we’re not capitalizing.”
At time of this writing, the Coyotes are in fifth place in the division and fourth in the Wild Card picture. Arizona can turn it around and make the playoffs, and what’s more, the team has played better as of late — a turnaround from when it won only three times in a 15-game stretch earlier this calendar year.
“Even when we were losing a little bit there, I felt like we were playing some good hockey,” Ekman-Larsson said. “But obviously against Tampa [on Saturday] we played almost a perfect game I felt like. And even [Tuesday vs. Florida], like I said, I felt like we were playing good hockey for the most part.
“It’s just the details, getting to the net and getting a little bit greasier in front of the net and doing whatever it takes. That’s what it’s all about this time of year. If it goes off your stick or your head or whatever it is, that’s the kind of goals that we need.”
The historical standings in this story were found on shrpsports.com.