GLENDALE, Ariz. — What a difference a year makes.
When the Arizona Coyotes skated off the Gila River Arena ice for the final time last season, they did so following their 50th regulation loss and 58th overall, the worst campaign since the franchise moved to Arizona. One April later, the playoffs still elude the Coyotes, but the feeling around the team could not be more different.
“Last season you couldn’t get off [the ice] quick enough,” Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett quipped. “Tonight, I think guys enjoyed themselves out there.”
Hope springs eternal in Coyotes Nation and many of the reasons for optimism were on display in Arizona’s 3-0 victory over the league-leading Washington Capitals on Saturday night in front of a sold-out crowd in Glendale.
Following two scoreless periods, Shane Doan broke the seal with his 27th tally of the season — ultimately the game-winning goal. From a goal-scoring perspective, 2015-16 is the 39-year-old’s best season since the 2008-09 campaign in which he scored 31.
After trudging his way through 79 games last season, there was some uncertainty regarding No. 19’s future. Now, one would be hard-pressed to find a fan or player who does not believe Doan will be taking the ice in a Coyotes uniform in October for his 21st season.
For as well as the captain played in 2015-16, the season will be remembered for the success of Arizona’s rookies — Max Domi, in particular.
With a pair of assists on Saturday, Domi set a new Coyotes rookie record for most assists in a season with 33, passing Peter Mueller’s 32 in 2007-08. The 21-year-old former first-rounder lived up to lofty expectations this season, currently ranking third among all NHL rookies with 51 points.
Although Domi shrugged off personal accolades in favor of team success, his contributions to the team have not gone unheralded by his peers.
“He’s a guy that’s a big part of our team and has contributed so much throughout the year. It’s impressive what he’s done,” Doan said.
“As good as he’s been as a player, as good as all of our rookies have been as players, they’ve been an absolute treat to have in our dressing room and I think that bodes (well) for the future.”
The rookies, including forwards Anthony Duclair and Jordan Martinook, are a huge reason why the outlook of the team has changed.
“It is a different feeling, just the atmosphere around our team,” Tippett said. “You see the way Max plays tonight, there’s lots of hope here.”
One of the few bright spots in a gloomy season last year was the play of defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson. He led all defensemen in goals last year with 23, setting the NHL record for most tallies by a Swedish defenseman.
His goal-scoring prowess continued into this season, scoring No. 21 of the campaign on Saturday, second among all NHL defensemen. He has a penchant for game-winning goals, setting the NHL record for most in a single season by a defenseman with eight on March 24.
Goaltender Mike Smith, who’s faced plenty of criticism from fans for his contract and injury history, recorded the 30th shutout of his career and third of the season on Saturday. Smith has proven to be highly successful when healthy. Since returning from a lower-body injury on March 12, Smith has a pair of shutouts and a a .962 save percentage in seven games.
In essence, the home finale was a microcosm of what Coyotes fans have to look forward to.
“We’ve improved leaps and bounds,” Smith said. “We’re not satisfied with not making the playoffs, obviously, but I think it’s steps in the right direction.
“If we make this much improvement again next year, I think we’re probably not having the same conversation right now.”
While the future appears bright, the harsh reality is that the Coyotes will miss the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season following their run to the Western Conference Final in 2012. Progress has been made, but the journey back to the postseason is long and arduous.
“We took a step forward but there’s still lots more work to be done,” Tippett said.