LAS VEGAS (AP) — The Arizona Coyotes‘ injury-plagued season finally came crashing down in the second period of their 81st game of the season.
Arizona entered Thursday night’s game against the Vegas Golden Knights needing a win to stay in playoff contention, but was officially eliminated from the postseason when Colorado went into overtime with Winnipeg earlier in the night.
The Avalanche needed just one point to clinch the final spot in the Western Conference, and that ruined a solid performance by the Coyotes, who got two goals from Derek Stepan and 35 saves by Darcy Kuemper in a 4-1 road win over Vegas.
It marks the seventh consecutive campaign, and 13th time in the last 16 seasons, the Coyotes will miss the playoffs.
“This room is bummed,” Stepan said. “You play an 82-game schedule, we’re in the thick of things and obviously came up a little bit short. When it’s official and you’re officially out, it stinks. We worked extremely hard, gone through a lot as a group, so it’s never easy being told that your season will be done after your last game.”
The Coyotes lost 377 total man games to injury this season, but never lost their fight in a tight Pacific Division and hotly contested wild-card race in the Western Conference.
Since Jan. 6th, the Coyotes are on a 22-13-5 run, while their 16 wins since Feb. 9 are tied for the fifth-most in the NHL. Arizona has earned points in 16 of its last 22 games (13-6-3).
“In my short career, I’ve never seen something quite like this, that our group went through with injuries,” Stepan said. “This group came and worked hard every single day. No one made excuses for this group. Everyone just put their work boots on. Didn’t matter win (or) loss, we came back to the rink and we got back to work again the next day. That’s a really positive thing and that makes a real special group.”
The Coyotes, who have earned points in 16 of their last 22 games (13-6-3), improved to 3-3-3 all-time against the Knights, and 3-1-1 at T-Mobile Arena.
Richard Panik and Conor Garland also scored for the Coyotes. Kuemper has started a career-high 55 contests and has won a career-best 27 games. Since the calendar flipped to 2019, Darcy Kuemper is 22-9-6 with a 2.02 goals against average.
“That shows a lot. They didn’t mail it in,” Arizona coach Rick Tocchet said. “They played for ‘Kuemps.’ That’s the stuff I’m proud of.”
Meanwhile, with Vegas locked into an opening-round series against Pacific Division-rival San Jose, the defending Western Conference champion welcomed back veteran goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who had been listed as day-to-day with a lower-body injury.
The Golden Knights were 4-3-2 while backup goalie Malcolm Subban stepped in for Fleury, who made 30 stops in his 59th start of the season.
“I always think you can get better and little things I wasn’t happy with and I still want to work on, so it’s good we still have the LA game,” said Fleury, whose 35 wins are tied for fourth-most in the NHL. “I feel sometimes it’s the timing and the speed of the game. Finding guys around you also, sometimes you focus so much on the puck, you want to stop it, you forget to look around where people are at.”
Fleury, a three-time Stanley Cup champion, will play in his 13th postseason, and second straight with the Golden Knights.
The lead wouldn’t last long, though, as Panik gathered a loose puck in the slot and blasted a shot past Fleury while falling down to tie it at 1 with 2:37 left in the first period.
Stepan’s two second-period goals pushed the Coyotes ahead 3-1.
On the first, Lawson Crouse fed Stepan, who deked around Fleury’s right pad to give Arizona a 2-1 lead. Stepan got his 15th goal of the season when he buried a rebound that would get challenged by Vegas coach Gerard Gallant, who was looking for goaltender interference. The Situation Room confirmed the incidental contact between Crouse and Fleury occurred in the white ice and did not constitute goaltender interference.
NOTES: After the Golden Knights announced they signed free agent defenseman Jimmy Schuldt to a one-year, entry level contract, the former Hobey Baker Award finalist skated during warmups and was then officially scratched for the game. … Vegas fan favorite Ryan Reaves was also a healthy scratch, missing only his second game of the season.
Arizona: Concludes its season hosting Winnipeg on Saturday.
Vegas: Finishes the regular season Saturday at Los Angeles.
Source: Fox Sports