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Red-hot Coyotes hope fantastic finish means big things for next season

Posted at 4:43 PM, Apr 02, 2018
and last updated 2018-04-02 19:49:39-04

The Arizona Coyotes largely became an afterthought among Valley sports fans after a historically bad start to their 2017-18 season.

But while the Coyotes will fall short of the postseason for the sixth straight year, those who checked out on this team early in the season ought to consider the following:

-The Coyotes are 16-8-2 since Feb. 8. Only six NHL teams have a better record during that span.

-Antti Raanta has been the NHL's best goaltender since Jan. 1, leading the league in save percentage and goals allowed average during that time.

-19-year-old forward Clayton Keller has shattered franchise rookie records and is a two-time NHL Rookie of the Month.

-The Coyotes shut out the St. Louis Blues 6-0 on Saturday, their first such victory in four years.

With everything finally going the Coyotes' way, is it frustrating that their season is about to come to an end?

"Yeah, it is. I’ll be honest with you," first-year Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said. "It’s hard for all of us because we want to keep it going. But it’s the NHL. You’ve got to play 82 games."

Keller, who was named the NHL's Rookie of the Month after notching six goals and 13 assists in 17 games in March, shares Tocchet's sentiments -- but he's also excited about the future of a Coyotes team that features a number of young, talented players, including himself.

"It’s definitely (frustrating) and motivating at the same time," he said. "We can take this on to next year. We’re playing as a group and we’re all on the same page. When we play (within our) systems, we’re a tough team to play against.

"Every great team kind of goes through a little bit of a lull here in the early parts of their career, but I think there's definitely good things to come. I think we all have a great relationship with one another, and it definitely translates to on the ice."

Raanta was named one of the NHL's three stars of the week after going 3-0 the week of March 26 and saving 34 shots in the Coyotes' 6-0 win Saturday. One of the Coyotes' top offseason priorities will be to re-sign Raanta, who will become a free agent at the end of the season -- but for now, Raanta loves coming to work, just like the rest of the team does at the moment.

"It’s a little bit more fun every day to come to practice or even to the games," Raanta said. "When you get the wins, everybody relaxes a little bit, and it’s easier to work on different things and get that in your mind what you need to do to actually win in those games.

By ending the season on a high note, the Coyotes may cost themselves a spot or two in this year's NHL Entry Draft. But Tocchet is less interested in moving up draft boards and more concerned with setting the tone for next season, which he hopes will result in the team's first playoff bid since their run all the way to the Western Conference Finals in 2012.

"We’re trying to finish strong. We’re not calling up six different guys (from the minors) trying to get them in the lineup; we’re playing the guys that are healthy," he said. "It only gives you traction for next year. I keep telling the players: It’s (about) habits. And if we continue to have good habits… it really helps your identity for going into next year.

"I think it’s something we can build on. But like I keep saying, we’ve got to make sure that we don’t stand pat. We’ve got to move forward with this."