GLENDALE, Ariz. — The NHL’s presumed No. 1 draft pick was in attendance for the Coyotes’ final home game of the season on Saturday. The symbolism was as subtle as a sledgehammer.
Arizona native Auston Matthews is symbolic of the growth of hockey in the desert. The Coyotes’ 3-0 win over the Washington Capitals is indicative of the growth this team has experienced since last season’s 56-point debacle.
With Saturday’s win over the NHL’s top team, Arizona improved to 77 points and added its 22nd home win — 11 more than the team managed last season when it left the ice in disarray after a loss to Anaheim on April 11, 2015.
“Last season, you couldn’t get off quick enough,” coach Dave Tippett said. “Tonight, I think guys enjoyed themselves out there. It is a different feeling. You see the way a guy like Max (Domi) plays tonight. There’s lots of hope here.”
Domi sits somewhere near the top of the team’s reasons for hopes. With a pair of assists on Saturday, he reached 51 points while setting the Coyotes’ single-season record for assists by a rookie with 33, eclipsing Peter Mueller’s mark.
“It’s impressive what he’s done,” said captain Shane Doan, who scored his 27th goal of the season. “As good as he’s been as a player — as good as all of our rookies have been as players — that bodes more for the future than anything.”
With Domi, Anthony Duclair, Jordan Martinook and Louis Domingue leading the way, and Dylan Strome, Christian Dvorak and Brendan Perlini soon to join them, the Coyotes are touting their promising future.
The growth of defensemen Connor Murphy and Michael Stone adds to that sense of hope, as does the addition of Brad Richardson, who reached a career-high in points (29) on Saturday with his 10th goal of the season.
But the most vital piece of the team’s future is still starting goalie Mike Smith. Since returning from lower-abdomen surgery that sidelined him for three months, Smith has been brilliant. On Saturday, he posted his second shutout in seven games since his return, and the 30th of his career.
Smith has allowed two goals or fewer in six of those seven games and has stopped 225 of 234 shots for a .962 save percentage.
“It was important for me to come back and not only show myself but show the team and the group and the organization that I can still play when I’m healthy and I’m feeling my best,” Smith said.
The Coyotes won’t be going to the playoffs for a fourth straight season. That reality still clouds any accomplishments, but as he held his son, Nixon, in his arms during his postgame interview, Smith couldn’t help but notice that the future was wearing a bright and happy face.
“Absolutely,” he said. “We’ve improved leaps and bounds. We’re not satisfied with not making the playoffs, obviously, but I think it’s steps in the right direction.
“If we make this much improvement again next year, I think we’re probably not having the same conversation right now.”
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