GLENDALE, Ariz. — Martin Hanzal scored his first short-handed goal since Dec. 4, 2008 when he found the back of the net against the Dallas Stars on the penalty kill. That wasn’t his only milestone of the night that saw the Arizona Coyotes defeat the Stars 3-1 at Gila River Arena.
The oversized center scored his 100th career NHL goal to put the Coyotes up 2-1 earlier in the game against their Central Division foes, and helped the team with a two-goal effort to come back from a tough season series against the Texas franchise last year.
Gone seem to be the days of losing to Dallas 6-0, as the Coyotes did on the road on New Year’s Eve last year. Hopefully, that’s a sign that the team has learned how to dominate during high-event hockey games, something that fans will appreciate when they hopefully become a playoff team again in the future.
“It’s a nice number,” laughed Hanzal, regarding the milestone. “It took me what, nine years? How am I gonna catch [Shane] Doan now?”
With his 100th – and 101st – career NHL goals, Hanzal is having the end to his season that just wasn’t possible last year. He was shut down midway through his 2014-15 campaign for back surgery, so seeing the surge now is something that Coyotes fans (and Hanzal himself) were denied come this time last spring.
It wasn’t just a solid effort from Hanzal, of course. Tobias Rieder, who had scored just one goal in his last 20 games prior to the team’s 4-2 victory on Tuesday, now has two goals in the last two games for the Pacific Division club.
The team has won five of their last seven games, they’re still dubiously in the playoff hunt, and there’s plenty of promise in the future.
What could they have left to improve on, then?
For starters, they could use the time to fine-tune their stamina. They’re seven points out of a playoff spot, but that doesn’t mean they should do anything but pretend they’re still well in the hunt.
“We don’t want to see this team mail it in at the end,” said head coach Dave Tippett. “Finishing out strong for the young guys is important, regardless of the outcome.”
That’s certainly something the team should be considering.
Rookie Max Domi earned his 47th career NHL point in his 73rd game of the season with an assist on Hanzal’s second goal. Fellow rookie Louis Domingue is currently auditioning for the chance of a lifetime – if he finishes out the season well, he could easily be the backup to Mike Smith when the 2016-17 season gets underway.
He’s doing his best to make it happen, that’s for sure. Domingue has a .969 save percentage in his last three games, stopping 95 of his last 98 shots against while in net for the Coyotes. Although he was starting to tire as his starting gig wore on with the Coyotes – the team saw him make over 20 consecutive starts while franchise starter Smith was on injured reserve for core muscle surgery – having a few extra breaks here and there as he splits the net with Smith through the end of the year is working wonders for him.
It’s not just the rookies who need to finish the season off strong, either.
Rieder was quick to credit his success in the last few games to strong defense and teamwork from the entire Coyotes roster, but the 23-year-old German winger has to be thinking about making himself shine as the year wears on.
He’s set to become a restricted free agent this summer, and he’s reportedly on the short list for players still being considered for Team Europe at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. He’s got plenty of competition, so doing well in the games to finish out the year will be huge.
Rieder isn’t the only player that wasn’t named to the European squad who’s having a solid spring for his club. Fellow winger and Swiss forward Nino Niederreiter has 19 goals and 41 points through 75 games for the Minnesota Wild this year, and he boasts four goals and three assists in his last six games. Both skaters are possession positives for their respective clubs and can contribute positively to the penalty kill. Since both are left shots listed as natural right wings, they could easily be competing for the same spot moving forward.
Captain Shane Doan is also having a strong season, with 25 goals and 43 points through just 65 games in what’s currently his 20th NHL season. He’s just 59 points from hitting 1,000, and that could bring him back next year.
Then, there’s the player that serves as the blue line difference maker – none other than Oliver Ekman-Larsson. He’s a catalyst in the Arizona lineup, with 51 points and counting.
It was a strong night for Hanzal, for sure. Looking at the team, though, it wasn’t just a strong night for Hanzal, it was a strong night for the Arizona Coyotes as a roster. That’s going to be what separates this spring from the last.