GLENDALE, Ariz. — Way back in April, the Coyotes set a simple goal of competing for a playoff spot this season. The two teams they wanted to emulate were Calgary and Ottawa; two teams that surprised the NHL last season by earning unexpected playoff berths.
It was fitting then that the Coyotes posted wins in back-to-back games over the Flames and Senators this weekend to secure a 3-0 homestand and put themselves in early position for their first playoff berth since 2012.
As it heads out on yet another lengthy road trip, Arizona is 13-9-1. Its 27 points are good for third place in the Pacific Division, two behind the Los Angeles Kings and one behind the San Jose Sharks. If the season had ended Sunday, the Coyotes would have faced the Sharks in the first round of the playoffs. Maybe that doesn’t mean anything to you just 23 games into the season, but it means something to the players who staggered through last season’s 56-point nightmare.
“Where we are in the standings, that alone makes you feel a lot better but I think we’ve been improving and we have real reasons to be optimistic in here,” forward Kyle Chipchura said. “It’s right there for us. We have a chance, if we keep playing well, to lead the pack. There’s a lot of hockey left and there will be a lot of ups and downs but we feel like we can compete with any team in our division now.”
The Coyotes’ current five-game trip through Nashville, Detroit, Buffalo, Carolina and St. Louis is their third road trip of four or more games and seven or more days already this season. By the time it is over, Arizona will have played 18 of its 41 road games (44 percent) one week into December.
Couple that with five sets of back-to-backs and it’s fair to say that the worst of the schedule will be behind Arizona until a brutal four-game road trip to close the season through St. Louis, Chicago, Nashville and San Jose.
“This summer when I was dissecting the schedule, that first month was a bear and we knew we were going to have to come out of that with some life,” coach Dave Tippett said. “We did.
“There’s different parts of the schedule that are quirky but it’s how you get around them and how you manage them to your benefit.”
The road-heavy schedule has also put an emphasis on the 12 home games the Coyotes have played. Before this last homestand, Arizona was just 3-4 on home ice. Now it has a head of steam and a little bit of breathing room as it hits the road again. Just as important, the Coyotes’ ability to win games with less than their best effort — as they did against Calgary and Ottawa — could boost the young team’s confidence.
“Two of the three games, we were fortunate to win,” Tippett said. “Let’s call a spade a spade. Our goaltending was really solid and we were opportunistic. We did some decent things in the game but not enough to warrant saying ‘OK, we should have won that game.’
“But the whole team, you look at those and say, ‘OK, we can weather some of these storms and still come out alright.’ We can be under siege and making some mistakes or not executing very well but you still hang around the game. It’s about finding ways to win.”
Both Tippett and captain Shane Doan are quick to point out that the Coyotes still have myriad flaws in their game.
“There’s lots of room for improvement,” Tippett said. “When our goaltending has been steady we’ve been very competitive but there’s games when we’re just not managing the puck well enough; doing things that allow you to have a chance to be a better team. Execution has been an issue at points with the whole group.”
That fact notwithstanding, the mood around the locker room is a 180-degree turn from where it was last season.
“It’s a group that really is enjoying playing,” Doan said. “As a group, we haven’t worried too much about what we’re doing next. We’ve been good about being in the moment, but at the same time, to have an opportunity to make the playoffs, that would be huge. That’s what you play for.”
Coyotes at Predators
When: Tuesday, 6 p.m.
Where: Bridgestone Arena, Nashville, Tenn.
TV: FOX Sports Arizona Plus
Radio: ESPN 620 AM
Injury report: Nashville — Injured: Fs Paul Gaustad (upper body), Gabriel Bourque (upper body) and F Miikka Salomaki (undisclosed) are on IR. G Carter Hutton (lower body) was injured on this crazy play. Arizona — F Shane Doan (lower body), F Steve Downie (upper body) and D Zbynek Michalek (illness) are day to day. F Joe Vitale (fractured orbital bone) did not travel with the team.
Scouting the Predators: Nashville is just 1-4-1 in its last six games with just six goals over that span … Former Coyotes Mike Ribeiro has just two goals and 12 points in 23 games, well off the 64-point pace he set last season. … F James Neal leads the team in goals (9) and points (17). … G Pekka Rinne’s .911 save percentage ranks 26th in the NHL.
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