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Arizona Coyotes need ‘fast starters’ in NHL’s sudden return to play

Arizona Coyotes center Carl Soderberg (34), defenseman Jakob Chychrun (6) and goaltender Darcy Kuemper, right, all watch the movement of the puck during NHL hockey practice at Gila River Arena, Monday, July 13, 2020, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The sudden restart of the 2019-20 NHL season means that teams who have slow starters probably won’t get to stick around very long.

Each club will play only one exhibition game — the Coyotes’ is on July 30 against the Vegas Golden Knights — before playing in the postseason tournament that will determine a Stanley Cup champion. That’s it. Just a few weeks of practice and one exhibition game separate a months-long layoff from the biggest games the Coyotes will have played in years.

Arizona better hope it doesn’t need a lot of time to find a groove.

“Well listen, some guys, after the summer and they start the season, you get fast starters,” head coach Rick Tocchet said Tuesday. “And then you get the odd guy, some guys that they’re a little bit slower as the season goes and then they progress and they hit their stride as the season goes on. We need all fast starters. We can’t afford, if we have 18 slow starters, we’re in trouble.

“I would like to see us have 23 or 21 guys in the lineup that are fast starters. That’s a great question because if you are a slow starter, you better change your thought process mentally and us coaches have to help you to be able to hit the ground running.”

As Taylor Hall put it to Arizona Sports’ Doug & Wolf, momentum probably isn’t worth much anymore. Leading goal-scorer Conor Garland and goaltender Darcy Kuemper, for example, are going to have to find their old game and do so immediately. The same is true for teams as a whole.

“I think if you thought you had momentum going into the break, I don’t really think it matters at this point in time,” Hall said. “This is probably a blessing for us. We were playing well, but we couldn’t find a way to win games in a row and gain traction in the standings. So this is really a second chance for us. I think a lot of guys in our room, we have a great attitude about it. I think there’s probably guys around the league that are maybe a little bit indifferent about playing, but we have a group that’s really excited about the chance that we have.”

Through the first month of games in 2019-20, the Coyotes’ power play started off at a respectable 21.1%, good for 15th in the league. The penalty kill, though, took some time to come around, sitting 21st in the league through October at a 79.4% rate. There are plenty of other factors that can play into that apart from it being the beginning of play after an offseason, but it remains true that shorter sample sizes don’t always represent what is supposed to happen in longer trends.

If a line combination or starting goaltender isn’t working out, Tocchet could be forced to make a change quickly. It’s a short leash when the Coyotes are playing in a do-or-die, best-of-five playoff series.

“Yeah, it is a short leash,” Tocchet said. “We talked about this, I talked to some of the players. Yeah, obviously some guys have a little bit longer rope. But once this thing goes, we need to see what your best is right away. I can’t be afraid — or any coach in this situation — can’t be afraid to pull the trigger on something and go with something else quickly, because you can’t wait too long.”


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