In a closely fought best-of-five series, the 2020 Arizona Coyotes summoned the spirit of the 2012 team to once again overcome the Nashville Predators in post-season play.
The last time this happened, the Coyotes progressed to the Western Conference Finals in their greatest playoffs performance since the Winnipeg Jets (1.0) relocated to the desert.
The 2020 iteration of the team has had to overcome some significant adversity, which threatened to undo the positive steps fans have seen the team take over the past two seasons.
Injuries have been a persistent problem for Rick Tocchet’s team over the past two years, with the Coyotes coming close to ending a seven-year wait for the post-season, only to fall short.
That team saw injuries to many key players, including then-starting goaltender Antti Raanta, which incidentally became Darcy Kuemper’s true unveiling to the NHL - establishing him as a legitimate starter in this league.
Those injuries continued to follow the team into the next season, with Niklas Hjalmarsson being the first key starter to miss a significant amount of time across the campaign.
Prior to Christmas, when Hjalmarsson was the only significant absence, the Coyotes sat atop the Pacific Division and were showing their true colors.
Fast forward to the start of March and the team had missed both Kuemper and Raanta for extended periods, seen Jason Demers and captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson also sidelined at times, with Conor Garland, the team’s top goalscorer this year, receiving an injury of his own.
The Coyotes had slipped out of top position in the division and were sitting outside of the playoff picture, worse-so than the previous campaign, heavily impacted by injuries that resulted in inconsistent play.
Then the pandemic hit the world and hockey was halted, seemingly ending the team’s season. Until the NHL came up with the 24-team system that allowed the Coyotes another lease on life and a chance to push their way back into the playoffs, this time with a healthy roster.
That’s not the last the team heard of injuries though. But something even more shocking and significant occurred when, just a few days before the team was scheduled to travel into their bubble in Edmonton, general manager John Chayka resigned from his position.
Seeing your GM walk out on you just before playing an important post-season series against a team that was seeded five places ahead of you, is bound to have made some players raise questions, or even make them feel somewhat despondent.
A lot of media attention suddenly surrounded the team, focusing on some unusual circumstances surrounding the team’s fairly new ownership group and how they are handling hockey operations, with a dinner with Taylor Hall being something that many focused on.
This kind of attention is something that fans, players and coaches alike were probably not used to in Arizona, at least not in the same way as a market such as Toronto, where every minute detail appears to be scrutinized in great detail.
But the players and coaches are professionals, gave expected responses in media availabilities, and focused their attention purely on the series ahead.
Then injuries struck again. This time in the form of Nick Schmaltz. Schmaltz received a hit to the head during the Arizona Coyotes’ warm-up game against the Vegas Golden Knights, which has so far prevented him from participating in the team’s postseason push.
Schmaltz was the team’s top points producer this season and is generally viewed as their second-best center, behind Christian Dvorak, or potentially even the team’s best at the position.
Losing a player of his influence just days before the start of the qualifying round seemed to add to the recent negativity surrounding the team.
But that did not stop the Arizona Coyotes from overcoming all of the odds to progress into the first round proper with a convincing 3-1 series victory over the Predators.
There were concerns in Game Two, with the Coyotes failing to score until the dying minutes of what was a route by Nashville.
More injury concerns have been raised with Antti Raanta being ruled unfit to play after taking a shot to the head in a pre-game warm-up, leading to Adin Hill sitting on the bench for the past couple of games.
There were plenty of stressful moments in the following two games, particularly when things were tied up, but the Coyotes players got their heads down and did their job.
This team has overcome a lot over the past year and their season is still ongoing. For the first time in eight years, we will see a Coyotes team in the first round of the playoffs and, while there is no telling how far they can realistically go, it is testament to this team’s spirit and unity that has seen them surprise many and push on beyond expectation.