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GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Arizona Coyotes are barreling toward April with the kind of momentum any NHL playoff team would enjoy having. The only problem: The Coyotes’ terrible start to the season doomed any postseason possibilities.
But their new-found success could indeed be a problem for the Nashville Predators, who are very much playoff-bound and competing to win the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s best team during the regular season.
The Coyotes (23-35-11) will have coach Rick Tocchet back Thursday night at Gila River Arena against the Western Conference-leading Predators (45-14-10) for the third and final time this season. Tocchet missed Arizona’s 4-3 shootout victory over the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday to be with his mother, who is fighting cancer.
Arizona could also get back starting goaltender Antti Raanta, who has been out since March 3 with a lower-body injury but went through a full practice Wednesday. Backup goalie Darcy Kuemper was also out Tuesday with a game-day illness. That left rookie Adin Hill, who came up from Tucson of the American Hockey League, to make 34 saves in his first NHL victory.
Raanta, Kuemper or Hill — it doesn’t seem to matter much who the Coyotes insert in goal these days. The team that began the season 0-10-1 is 11-3-2 in its last 16 games. During the last month, only the Predators (25) have more points than the Coyotes (21) among Western Conference teams.
#Yotes interim coach John MacLean: “The guys really wanted to win this one tonight (for Rick Tocchet).” pic.twitter.com/ZRyG7XUU4R
— FOX Sports Arizona (@FOXSPORTSAZ) March 14, 2018
The Predators are hotter than anyone, winning 11 of their last 12, with the only loss in a shootout. Nashville could overtake Tampa Bay (100 points) for the NHL lead by winning Thursday. The Lightning don’t play again until Saturday against the Boston Bruins.
“I feel like as a team and me, too, personally, I think it (the Presidents’ Trophy) is a goal that we can say out loud,” said Predators goalie Pekka Rinne, who leads the league in save percentage (.929) and goals-against (2.25) among goalies with at least 40 games played. “It’s something we haven’t done before here. That would mean a lot to us all. … There’s not too many banners (in Bridgestone Arena), and that would be great.”
The Predators missed a chance to gain a banner last season when they lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games in the Stanley Cup finals, when Tocchet was on Pittsburgh’s bench as an assistant coach.
Nashville also won Tuesday, beating the Winnipeg Jets 3-1 as Rinne made 32 saves and Austin Watson and Viktor Arvidsson scored 34 seconds apart short-handed in the first period. Arvidsson leads the Predators with 26 goals and 52 points.
“We marked it as a game that had to go our way as we sit here and … battle for what we need to do in order to better ourselves for the (playoffs),” Predators coach Peter Laviolette said. “Obviously, the division, the conference, those are things we talk about, so the two points were very important.”
Two points wouldn’t mean that much for the Coyotes except to give them further momentum as they try to made up for a terrible first half of the season with a respectable second half. They’ve already shown the Predators they can be a dangerous team, beating them 3-2 in Nashville on Jan. 4 before losing 3-2 in a shootout on Jan. 18 at Gila River Arena. They are 4-0-1 in their last five meetings with the Predators at Gila River Arena.
“I’m just happy with how the guys are showing up to the rink,” Coyotes assistant coach John MacLean said. “When you win, everyone feels good and your energy is better. I think we see that during our little run we’re on now.”
Clayton Keller, Arizona’s 19-year-old center, scored his 19th goal of the season against the Kings and now has 50 points, putting him within five points of breaking Peter Mueller’s franchise rookie record with 54 points.
“You try to go out there and produce every night,” Keller said. “I try to do everything I can to help the team win.”