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In Coyotes’ win over Predators, Arizona’s star players led the way

The Arizona Coyotes celebrate a goal by Oliver Ekman-Larsson #23 against the Nashville Predators during the first period in Game One of the Western Conference Qualification Round prior to the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place on August 02, 2020 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)

Buried under the obvious glow of a postseason win, there was another, more subtle victory for the Arizona Coyotes on Sunday:

No fan, media member or coach is having to dissect how the team’s best players can be more productive or why they are struggling. Quite simply: They aren’t. In the Coyotes’ most important game all season, the Coyotes’ most relied-upon names with the most cachet were the most involved in an early-game scoring outburst that led to a 4-3 postseason win over the Predators.

In an alternate reality where the COVID-19 pandemic never happened, it was quite possible that the Coyotes were going to miss the playoffs. Fingers would have been pointed by onlookers. Blame would’ve been placed by fans and media. But a restructured postseason format was the byproduct of the coronavirus, and the Coyotes got in. Now, Arizona’s stars are being celebrated rather than scrutinized.

“They just took charge. Not so much [our stars], just our team,” head coach Rick Tocchet said. “You’ve got to handle pressure by going after the pressure. Phil [Kessel] and [Taylor Hall] and [Christian Dvorak], that line was great. I thought [Oliver Ekman-Larsson] was outstanding. You could tell that he took charge of a lot of the plays out there. ‘Kuemps’ [goalie Darcy Kuemper] was great.

“We just can’t have passengers. This team, we can’t afford to have four, five, six guys not have their game. We need everybody to play. And those guys brought it to a different level, and that’s nice to see.”

The Coyotes’ season had many storylines, one of which was the team falling out of first place in the division to being out of a playoff spot entirely. Forward Phil Kessel, a marquee offseason acquisition, had 14 goals this year, his fewest through a season’s first 70 games since his rookie season. It seems that the coronavirus-caused hiatus did him good in healing some nagging injuries, because he had two points on Sunday (both assists).

For the Coyotes, Sunday marked a time that the most well-known and well-paid players on the team were the reason for success, something that hasn’t been the case all year.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who is trying to live up to the lofty expectations that are implied by an eight-year, $66 million extension, looked sharp and even scored the game’s opening goal, albeit a wacky one.

“I think it’s a big start for us if you get a goal like that,” forward Michael Grabner said. “It gives you some momentum, it eases a little bit to get the go-ahead goal there, so we’ll take any bounces we can get and especially early-on in the game and in the series.”

Ditto for Clayton Keller, a former first-round pick whose $7.15 million cap hit hasn’t even kicked in yet. He scored the Coyotes’ third goal of the game.

“I felt great today,” he said. “I think I was doing the right things early and shooting the puck. You know, when I do that early, I seem to get into a flow and then I played from there. I know what my tendencies are, so if I can continue to do that, I can be a big-time player in the series.”

Taylor Hall, another should-be key player for the Coyotes, came through. He helped generate the scoring chance that led to a goal by Christian Dvorak, putting the Coyotes up 2-0. He also was given an assist on the Ekman-Larsson goal, joining Kessel as multi-point player in the win.

“Listen, it was a nice win for us. 1-21 contributed,” Tocchet said. “I liked the temperament on the bench, even when things were a little hairy there, I really liked just everybody’s resolve.

“Saying that, it’s just one game. I’m an even-keeled guy. If we would’ve lost the game, I’d be in the same situation in the sense that you’re even-keel. This playoffs, there’s a lot of highs and there’s a lot of lows. You can enjoy the win for a couple minutes but for me, other than that, you’ve just got to gameplan for tomorrow and figure out the rest and all of that stuff for the guys is the next thing for us.”

Game 2 is on Tuesday.

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