They haven't advanced to the playoffs in seven years. But in a very real way, the postseason has already arrived for the Arizona Coyotes.
The Coyotes snapped a five-game losing streak with a crucial 1-0 win over the Chicago Blackhawks in Glendale on Tuesday night. The win moved the Coyotes into a tie with the Colorado Avalanche for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference -- until the Avalanche regained a two-point advantage over Arizona with a home victory over the Vegas Golden Knights 24 hours later.
On Friday, the Coyotes and Avalanche will square off in Denver in what could essentially be a playoff elimination game -- at least for the Coyotes. Both teams have just five regular-season games to play, and an Avalanche victory could all but end Arizona's goal of advancing to the postseason for the first time since 2012.
So, it's not a stretch to say Friday night's matchup might as well be considered a playoff game. In fact, it'll be the Coyotes' most meaningful game since May 22, 2012, when they were eliminated by the Los Angeles Kings in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals.
"Friday night’s the most important game in the last, what, how many years, right?" second-year Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet said after Tuesday's win. "So, this is something we’re looking forward to. This is a big, big game for us on Friday."
The @ArizonaCoyotes earned a huge win over the Blackhawks last night.— ABC15 Sports (@abc15sports) March 27, 2019
Now, the Coyotes look forward to what coach Rick Tocchet calls the team's most important game in years: A matchup at the Avalanche, whom they're tied with for the final playoff spot in the West. pic.twitter.com/XhJjJXsVFU
The Coyotes are a young group that has overcome an absurd amount of injuries this season. They're healthier now than in just about any other point in the regular season, but the team's youth and inexperience in high-pressure situations is sometimes evident, including during last week's East Coast road trip in which they scored four goals in as many games.
But Tocchet liked what he saw from his team in a gritty 1-0 win over Chicago.
"I thought the guys early were a little tight, but as the game went on, I could see the bench -- guys were enjoying it, like it was a good kind of pressure," he said.
"That’s what I want. I want these guys to know that this is good. You want the puck. You want to be in those situations."
Winning in Colorado won't be easy. The Avs have won five of their last six games, including three in a row at home. But despite their struggles on last week's road trip, the Yotes have played better on the road than they have at home for most of the season.
"We’ve been a good road team all year," Tocchet said. "I think we handle the road really well. I’m not really worried about this team."
The Coyotes have been carried for most of the season by Darcy Kuemper, who entered 2018-19 as the team's backup goaltender but was asked to step up when starter Antti Raanta went out for the season due to injury. Kuemper has answered the call and then some, and he earned his fourth shutout of the season in Tuesday's win.
But Tocchet knows the Coyotes won't be able to make the playoffs by continuing to average one goal per game -- and the only way his young, blue-collar squad is going to reach the postseason is by playing fearless hockey the rest of the way.
The stage is set for the Coyotes to do just that Friday night in Denver.
"You can’t freeze," Tocchet said. "I don’t want them to be scared. I want them to embrace it and face it head-on."