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Clayton Keller helps Coyotes come back to beat Sabres in crucial victory

Arizona Coyotes right wing Clayton Keller shouts as he celebrates his goal against the Buffalo Sabres during the second period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — There’s an argument to be made that the Coyotes’ 2-0 deficit just 8:43 into the first period of Saturday’s game was the lowest point so far in their season.

Arizona entered the night in fifth place in the Wild Card, with many teams ahead of them having games in hand, despite the Coyotes previously owning first place in the division. Knowing every game is crucial, Arizona found itself down 2-0 at first intermission in the last game of a homestand.

Then, everything changed. The Coyotes went on to win 5-2.

“I liked our last 10 [minutes] of the first,” head coach Rick Tocchet said. “So I went in [the locker room] and said, ‘Hey, listen guys, obviously we put ourselves in a bad hole.’ The last thing you want [is] to go in that room and make guys nervous by being upset. I honestly thought the last 10 we were OK.

“And then obviously a couple guys really got us back in the game.”

One of those was Clayton Keller.

He made a slick backhand assist through a defender to find defenseman Jordan Oesterle alone on the doorstep, and Oesterle scored to cut it to 2-1. Then Phil Kessel scored on his own rebound to tie it, and Keller himself scored to make it 3-2 Coyotes just 7:30 into the second period.

At second intermission, Arizona was in the lead.

In the third, Keller scored again to make it 4-2, and a late empty-net goal for Oliver Ekman-Larsson gave the final score of 5-2.

“He was unbelievable tonight,” Oesterle said. “Obviously on that goal, you could see he’s got eyes like not everyone else has. But he was lethal out there. He just played a good 200-foot game. He was good defensively, he was getting pucks out of the zone when we needed them, and he was making smart plays in the O-Zone. So it was nice to see him get rewarded and have a night like that, and we need him and everyone else to continue to play like that down the stretch.”

Indeed, an axiom of crunch time in sports is that “you need your best players to be your best players.” Clayton Keller is one of the Coyotes’ best players, but from Dec. 28 to Feb. 13 of this season, he had only six points in 21 games. Lately, he’s trending in a positive direction.

“I think the last two, three weeks, he’s been one of our better forwards, I really believe,” Tocchet said. “He’s been on the ice early with me and the coaches before practice. I know he wants to finish strong. He wasn’t happy there a while ago, and I think these last two, three weeks, he’s been really an energy guy out there, and that’s the way he’s got to play every night for us to be successful.”

Saturday was Keller’s second three-point game in the last three games. He now has eight points (five goals, three assists) in seven games.

“I felt pretty good tonight. I know I thought I had a lot of takeaways and I was hard on the puck,” Keller said. “It’s just a matter of doing that every single night. I know I can do it. So it’s good to have this feeling at this time of the year.”

For where the Coyotes are at in the standings and in their season, it would be monumental for Keller to continue his production.

“Any time you’re a point guy and you get those points, its loosens you up and you get more confidence,” Tocchet said. “But you’ve got to be careful. Sometimes you start to feel it and you start getting fancy again, and then you start toe-dragging. You’ve just got to understand what made you successful.

“And to me, Kells went to the net, he stripped guys with pucks, he back-checked, he shot the puck when he was supposed to do it. He just did those things. And I don’t care if you feel it or not. Just stay with those principals, and if you believe in karma, that’s what happens.”

Keller now has 17 goals this season and leads the team in points with 43.

The goals in the first period were from Marcus Johansson and Jeff Skinner. Antti Raanta started in goal for the Coyotes, making 25 saves on 27 shots. Jonas Johansson was in net for Buffalo and stopped 26 or 30 shots.

QUICK HITS

— Jason Demers made his return to the lineup, playing for the first time since Feb. 1.

“I missed the guys a lot and you know me, anyone’s around the rink, I hate being away. That was a tough one because the guys were on the road at the start of the injury so I felt a little isolated. But it was great to be back. I think the last few games, we’ve been playing really well and playing our game.”


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