At least they know where they stand. At least the Arizona Coyotes got to see firsthand what it’s like to play in the Stanley Cup Playoffs against a Stanley Cup contender.
“We have a lot of work to do,” coach Rick Tocchet said after Arizona was eliminated in a 7-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche in Game 5 of the Western Conference First Round on Wednesday. “But I’m glad we got this experience. I think it’s going to help a lot of our players to know what it’s going to take.”
The end was awful. Arizona was outscored 14-2 in the final two games. In more than a century of NHL history, only once has there been a larger goal differential in the final two games of a series: in the 1944 semifinals, when the Montreal Canadiens outscored the Toronto Maple Leafs 15-1.
“Just the way it went down,” center Derek Stepan said, “it’s going to be sour for a while.”
But take a step back. The Coyotes had not made the playoffs since 2011-12. When this season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus, they were not in a playoff spot.
They received new life in the NHL Return to Play Plan, a 24-team tournament with the 12 Western Conference teams in Edmonton and the 12 Eastern Conference teams in Toronto. The Coyotes, the 11th seed in the West, got to play the Nashville Predators, the sixth seed, in a best-of-5 series in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers.
“It’s a huge experience,” Tocchet said. “I was talking to some young guys about it. If we don’t get in this play-in thing and they don’t experience this, they’re on a beach, and they’re looking at us three, four points out of a playoff spot thinking, ‘Hey, we’re close.’ Well, they played in it. We’ve got a long way to go.”
Even though general manager John Chayka quit July 26 as the Coyotes headed to Edmonton, they defeated the Predators 3-1 for their first postseason series win since they defeated the Predators 4-1 in the second round in 2012.
The Avalanche, however, were too much, especially under the circumstances.
Forward Nick Schmaltz, who led Arizona with 45 points (11 goals, 34 assists) in the regular season, was unfit to play in the postseason. Forward Conor Garland, who led Arizona with 22 goals in the regular season, left in Game 4 against Colorado.
Tocchet hinted at other health issues.
“We had a couple guys playing hurt,” he said. “There’s no excuses. We were overmatched.”
It’s hard to know if the health issues included Taylor Hall and Phil Kessel, but the forwards Arizona brought in to be difference-makers didn’t make the difference. Hall, acquired in a trade with the New Jersey Devils on Dec. 16, had two points (one goal, one assist) in a 4-2 win in Game 3. He didn’t have a point in the four losses. Kessel, acquired in a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins on June 29, 2019, didn’t have a point in the series.
“We collectively had a bunch of guys that just did not play well,” Tocchet said. “Quite frankly, I’m not sure where their minds were. But I’m not going to hammer them, because they chipped away at some stuff and, for about a week here, we had a tough time.”
The Coyotes have big issues to address this offseason, starting with hiring a general manager and trying to sign Hall, a pending unrestricted free agent. They have to keep improving this roster, both in terms of high-end talent and depth.
But they have outstanding goaltending in Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta, and they have some young talent that got a taste of success and failure in the playoffs. Six Coyotes players scored their first NHL postseason goal: Garland, Jakob Chychrun, Lawson Crouse, Christian Dvorak, Clayton Keller and Jordan Oesterle.
“Any time you get playoff experience, it’s going to help you down the road,” said Stepan, a veteran of 106 playoff games. “Obviously losing our last two games the way we did, I hope it sticks in their brain just how important every little play matters and every little detail matters at this time of the year, and if there is any doubt or any questioning going on within your lineup, it exposes you, and it makes it really difficult, so I hope it was a good learning moment for all of our group.”
It was important even for a player like defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson. He’s 29. He has spent a decade in Arizona. He is the captain of the Coyotes. But this was his second playoff appearance in the NHL and his first in eight years.
“I think it’s a great learning experience that we got,” Ekman-Larsson said. “Hopefully can bring that into next year.”