PHILADELPHIA — The Arizona Coyotes hoped to arrive in Pennsylvania this weekend with their grand plans intact.
They hoped to be within striking distance of the playoffs — a goal they had set at the start of the season. They hoped to give the team the help it had earned for a playoff push by adding a reasonable piece or two before the trade deadline — perhaps even former Coyote Radim Vrbata.
They even considered keeping forward Mikkel Boedker for that playoff push, even if it meant he brought less return in a draft-day deal, or walked away for nothing as an unrestricted free agency this summer.
Unfortunately for the team, the optional practice it held Friday at the University of Pennsylvania on road-weary legs felt just as much like a team teetering on the edge of playoff extinction. After three straight one-goal losses in the first three games of this five-game trip, a Boedker trade appears imminent and the acquisition of immediate help seems less likely with the Coyotes eight points behind Colorado (with two games in hand) for the Western Conference’s final wild card spot, and a seemingly insurmountable 10 points out of a playoff spot in the Pacific Division.
“I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t take a bit of a toll,” defenseman Connor Murphy said. “Falling short just goes to show that it takes a lot more than just effort this time of year to win games.”
Two goals dominated the Coyotes’ preseason preaching. They wanted to see growth throughout their lineup and organization, and they wanted to compete for a playoff spot.
There is no denying that rookies Max Domi, Louis Domingue, Anthony Duclair and Jordan Martinook have progressed, as have young defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Connor Murphy, Michael Stone and forward Tobias Rieder. Even if the goal of making the playoffs dies in the coming days (the Coyotes are not giving up that ghost just yet), coach Dave Tippett said the disappointment of the team’s recent stretch is balanced by that progress he has seen.
“There is no satisfaction in not winning,” Tippett said. “Not winning is miserable, but that being said, I look at our lineup right now and the young players we have in there competing and getting the experience they are; that’s the growth we were talking about at the start of the year.”
When the Coyotes look back on this season, they may identify the turning point as a Jan. 14 against the Detroit Red Wings at Gila River Arena. Arizona had won the first two games of a critical seven-game homestand and had a 2-0 lead on the Wings with nine minutes left in the third period before a late rally gave Detroit a 3-2 win in overtime.
The Coyotes are 5-12-2 since that game, a record that will dim most playoff hopes. Despite that fateful stretch, captain Shane Doan agreed that the long view on this season will also provide some positives.
“Everyone learns and grows from this whether it’s your first time or whether it’s your 20th, but it’s always tough to be in this situation,” Doan said. “At the same time, our young guys have at times shown what makes everyone excited about going forward. It’s encouraging and we want to try to keep pushing forward.
“The desire is still there.”
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