The Coyotes Are Better Than All The Stanley Cup Champs, In A Manner Of Speaking
11:43 AM EST on December 5, 2023
To be the best, you've got to beat the best, and if you take a slightly longer perspective, that's exactly what the Arizona Coyotes are doing right now. Thanks to a strange arrangement of their schedule, over their past five games my Yotes have ripped off a win streak consisting of the following opponents: Vegas, Tampa, Colorado, St. Louis, Washington.
Spot the pattern? Of course you do. Those are the last five Stanley Cup champions that the Coyotes have taken out, all in a row and all to put Arizona in a wild card slot after basically a decade in the wilderness. A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I'd adopted the Coyotes as a kind of senior dog friend, based mostly on sympathy for their years of dysfunction and the fact that they're in the second year of a squat in a college arena with no clear exit strategy. But thanks to the scoring of soon-to-be-household names like Nick Schmaltz and Michael Carcone, this team is starting to win over fans the old-fashioned way. I hope they've got some extra folding chairs in the basement of that barn.
This recent success began off the back of a three-game losing streak, which in itself followed a nauseating see-saw of win-lose-win-lose through the first half of November, so it's not as though the Coyotes are anything dominant just yet. But the good fortune got rolling, as it so rarely does, in Las Vegas, where on the Saturday after Thanksgiving the Yotes played 50 minutes of scoreless hockey and then received a game-winner from their main man, Clayton Keller, to defeat the reigning Cup winners.
“It's a Stanley Cup champion team on the other side,” Coyotes coach André Tourigny said afterward. "The way we played defensively, the way we managed the puck, the way we managed our game, that's what we've been begging for for a while. That's what we're capable of. I'm not saying we'll play 82 like that, but that mindset we had, that's what we need to copy and paste.”
The back-to-back 2020/1 champs fell next at the start of a homestand, where Connor Ingram turned in another strong performance in net for a 3-1 victory over the Lightning. Then the 2022 champs, the Avalanche, came to the desert and played the Yotes evenly until Nick Bjugstad pushed one through in overtime. The Blues, owners of the 2019 Cup (and who admittedly beat the Yotes just before this streak started) fell victim 4-1 to more Ingram obstinacy, some effective penalty killing, and also another goal for Carcone—the 27-year-old who's leading the team despite mostly making his home in the minors before this year.
Finally, the Yotes got to test themselves against the ghost of the 2018 champion Washington Capitals. It wasn't even a contest. The Coyotes took another two points, 6-0, with a five-goal explosion in the closing 11 minutes of the first period that chased their onetime goalie Darcy Kuemper, who made only two saves before getting the hook. All the stars were out tonight: the Keller-Schmaltz combo worked twice, Bjugstad got one shorthanded, Carcone picked up yet another, and Logan Cooley, the dynamic teen drafted third overall in 2022, broke an anonymous spell by rocketing toward an unguarded net on the power play and finishing a pass from Keller.
My brain's been doing this thing where it responds to every trend across the league with "Well, it's early." But wouldn't you know it: We're a quarter of the way through the NHL season. I'm not sure the Coyotes' building could even fit the whole cluster of teams that currently sit between 20 and 30 points, and it still feels mostly pointless to try to forecast who's going to do the climbing and eye-gouging necessary to make it out alive. But it's certainly not a bad thing for Arizona that this little streak has lifted them to the upper part of that pile. The "former champs" aspect of the streak is something fun, and technically unprecedented, but at the end of the year, it's 10 points in five games, and that might be more valuable than gold.
And speaking of value: land! Almost as if they were waiting for a moment of goodwill, some sources leaked to PHNX Sports this week that the team is "zeroing in" on a new patch of grass to replace the proposed arena site that voters shot down earlier this year. Even with the veto on the old plan, Gary Bettman and owner Alex Meruelo continue to ignore obvious cities in need of an NHL franchise, like Halifax or Chicago, and instead remain determined to make one fit in the Southwest. As Craig Morgan noted in his report, the path forward is still a murky one. "The Coyotes hope to structure the deal in a manner that will avoid a public vote," he wrote, "But the team would still need some tax abatements to offset the construction cost so it is unclear how they will bridge those two realities." The Coyotes, then, are trying to make these three things work all at once: 1) Stay planted in Arizona, 2) Get the team-friendliest deal possible on a new arena, 3) Graduate from college in under six years.
Thankfully, this is their problem, not ours. We humble members of Yotes Nation can continue to enjoy Carcone, Crouse, and Cooley no matter what real estate deals take place on the golf courses of Scottsdale, as the boys continue to bring it against teams we remember being good in Junes of our past. And also the Flyers. They have the Flyers next.