“Hope. Hope in the face of difficulty - in the face of difficulty. The audacity of hope!”
Barack Obama, Democratic Congress Keynote Speech, 2004.
It has been a very tough start to the season, even by the somewhat elevated standards of the Arizona Coyotes fanbase.
An NHL-record-equalling losing streak to start the season, then several more, constant (and often unwarranted) sneering from so-called “bigger” teams and their media (notably in Toronto and Montreal, but we’ll get to that) and a trip to Eastern Canada to face the streaking Maple Leafs, the Canadiens and the Senators looming last week and you’d have forgiven the Coyotes for feeling...well, a little beleaguered.
This Eastern Canada road trip the Coyotes have just returned from, however, turned out to be something very special.
It showcased everything that was good about the Coyotes - all the youthful drive, verve and pride in the jersey that had been missing at points this season. It showed a young, dynamic squad growing into themselves and their game, growing in confidence and belief.
Most importantly, it showed a squad in which, finally, all the pieces that had seemed so promising at the start of the season and had struggled to click into place were beginning to come together.
On the back end, Antti Raanta was immense. His performance on the trip as a whole got better with every game, culminating in a truly defiantly immense showing against the high-powered and much-touted offense of the Maple Leafs, one in which he may well have come of age as the Coyotes starter.
In front of him, Oliver Ekman-Larsson forced trade rumors back down the Toronto media’s throat with an assured performance that looked more like the OEL we know and love, including a trademark blueline rocket for the game-winning goal. Max Domi broke his goalscoring slump with a goal in the rink where his father had run riot and terrorized opponents for so many years.
Most importantly, the unsung players in the Coyotes roster, and arguably some of the most unloved, showed what they were worth. Brad Richardson was practically unbeatable in the faceoff circle and his wingers Jordan Martinook and Zac Rinaldo were minor forces of nature - Rinaldo, in particular, played arguably one of the best games he’s played in his entire chequered NHL career, being a defensive force late in the game with the Coyotes defending a narrow one-goal lead.
And finally, because Eastern Canada will bring out the pitchforks if we don’t mention it - the Coyotes finally got some luck and a bounce that went their way. Late in the game, Auston Matthews’ equalizer was (correctly) ruled out after a spear on Antti Raanta in the build-up gave the Leafs the advantage they needed to find the net.
You can’t help but feel that in many previous games, that decision would have gone the other way.
This Coyotes team feels like it has a very different atmosphere around it to the one that left.
The constant relocation jokes, sniping, and sneering from so-called “experts” have forced the team to grow a hard outer shell - one that effectively flips the finger to the rest of the hockey world and takes joy in its underdog status, and pride in making people eat their words, of which there have been many since the start of the season.
In adversity, this young team has bonded and found strength and pride on their own when nobody else would give them any cause to have any. Compare their reaction to - say - Edmonton, who continue to wilt under the pressure and expectation while their media desperately try to defend and coddle a system and organization that is somehow managing to waste one of the premier hockey talents of the modern era.
The Coyotes and their fanbase have been through the fire this season. They have been tested almost to breaking point. However, this Eastern Canada trip, and specifically the game against Toronto, was the first time we saw them push back - the first time that we saw what might have been forged in the flames.
The trip showed what Barack Obama referred to as “the audacity of hope”. The Coyotes and their fanbase were finally rewarded for continuing to hope that things would get better and that eventually, this team would begin to find their game.
Now, tonight, as they return to Gila River Arena, the question for the first time this season is not “will they break the struggles” but “can they sustain the momentum”.
As Brendan Perlini said after the Leafs game, it only takes a couple of wins to start a streak.
Arizona is feeling the audacity of hope for the first time this season, and it’s a beautiful thing. Now, it’s time to see if the Coyotes can continue becoming the team we always hoped they could be - the one that we saw in Toronto and Eastern Canada this past week.
If so, in the weeks to come we might be looking back on the last week as the time the season finally turned for the better, and all it needed was some sneering Canadian media and a little hope.