By Andrew Bell
Coyotes defenseman Jason Demers looked up to the heavens. He let loose a massive fist pump before being swarmed by four red sweaters.
Moments prior, he had been the beneficiary of a pass from below the goal line from forward Christian Dvorak. Demers wound up with the puck on his stick and let one rip. His shot clanked off the arm of Anaheim Ducks goaltender Ryan Miller and into the back of the net to make the score 2-0 in the first period.
The Coyotes defenseman, who returned to the lineup last week after an injury he sustained in November, scored his first goal since the health issues he sustained earlier in the year. It was his second goal of the season.
Demers, playing in his 10th NHL season, knows what this time of year is all about. The lineup and the team he has returned to is now three points ahead of the Minnesota Wild for the eighth and final position in the Western Conference playoff picture.
“I really don’t feel like we should have any pressure on us. I think we have been the underdogs all year,” Demers said. “You just have to embrace that role. It’s great that people are coming out but no one expected us to be here and still expects us to make it in. So I think that’s the kind of mentality we have to have.”
While most teams are either hitting their stride or trending down at this time of year, the Coyotes have hit a steady pace. They have won 10 of their last 12 games and eight of their last nine games at home. You could argue the team has been getting better as a unit because of returns throughout the lineup.
Last Saturday against the Los Angeles Kings, Dvorak and forward Michael Grabner had two goals a piece. They had just recently returned from injury as well.
Forward Vinnie Hinostroza recorded a hat trick with three goals on Thursday. He has been healthy but has picked up his scoring touch substantially, accumulating 12 points in his last 12 games.
Even a few weeks back, forward Brad Richardson had a four-goal performance at home. Down the line, different guys have stepped up.
“That’s what you are looking for. These moments, certain guys rise to the occasion,” head coach Rick Tocchet said. “We are getting certain guys and different guys. Everyone is contributing. It’s not like we are top heavy in goals and assists. It’s spread around…Whether it’s Grabs or Richie or Vinnie or whoever, guys are grabbing the spotlight. It’s a team game.”
Grabbing the biggest spotlight above others has been the man on the back end – goaltender Darcy Kuemper. He won his 19th game since the New Year against the Ducks on Thursday. That is the most wins in the NHL since that time.
No matter who it has been, the Coyotes have been sharing the wealth and they find themselves with slight breathing room in the eighth seed. More efforts will be needed like Demers’ two-point performance and Hinostroza’s hat trick against the Ducks on Thursday.
After a 6-1 win against Anaheim, the Coyotes are at home again on Saturday against the Edmonton Oilers.
“It’s not like we are playing for our lives. We are just playing to have fun,” Hinostroza said. “I come to the rink everyday to get better and every game has been a playoff game for the last two months and we are not going to let that change anything.”