By Andrew Bell
Arizona Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet started his first season with the organization in 2017-18 losing 11-straight games as the new man behind the bench.
That season ended with the Coyotes being 12 games under .500 and finishing last in the Pacific Division. 2018-19 brought out different results, finishing four games over .500 but missing out on the Stanley Cup Playoffs by a matter of points. It was a step, but not the big leap that the team was hoping for.
However, the long road back to winning, postseason hockey finally hit its first apex under Tocchet on Friday afternoon when the Coyotes defeated the Nashville Predators 4-3 in overtime on a game-winner from forward Brad Richardson.
For the first time in eight years, the Yotes have a postseason series victory, as they upended the Preds in four games to advance past the Stanley Cup Qualifiers and into the field of 16 teams.
“I remember three years ago, we said we wanted to chip away at playing some important games,” Tocchet said. “That’s probably the biggest important game this franchise has had in a long time. The resiliency of a lot of things that have been thrown at the organization and the team, I am just proud of the guys to deal with it.”
Friday’s game was somewhat symbolic of what the last few years have been like. Off the ice, the organization lost former General Manager John Chayka – the man who put together this year’s roster – right before the postseason.
On the ice, the Coyotes have dealt with a number of long-term injuries through the last two seasons with a young cast of players. There’s been highs, and lows, but Tocchet has kept his guys on a path to stay the course.
The Coyotes led 2-0 in the second period on Friday, only to surrender the lead and head into the final 20 minutes tied up at two.
Defenseman Jordan Oesterle appeared to have the game-winner when he scored just over four minutes into the third period, but adversity would hit again when the Preds tied the game off of a Coyotes missed clearing attempt with only 31 seconds remaining.
“We went back in the locker room and regrouped,” said Oesterle of the message in between the third period and overtime. “Our older guys…They really stepped up in the locker room and told us it was our time to be a hero. Richie (Richardson) was the hero tonight and we move on to round one.”
Tocchet came into the dressing room to speak with his team earlier than he normally would after the third. He relayed a short message before the veterans of the team brought energy back into the room.
Richardson capped off the rest, and it was only fitting for a player who has been with the Yotes’ for the last five seasons.
In his first three years in Arizona, Richardson didn’t play on a winning team. The overall record between those three years was 94-122-30. He’s been through front office changes, two coaches, and losing seasons after playing on a Stanley Cup winner with the Los Angeles Kings in 2012.
“There’s a lot of thoughts after,” said of Richardson’s big picture reaction to winning the first Coyotes playoff series since 2012. “We went through a lot of crap here, and some teams that needed to mature and grow. It just feels like a lot of hard work came to fruition there. We’ve got a long way to go but that’s a big hurdle for our team and it feels really good.”
Throughout Tocchet’s postgame press conference, the word “resiliency” was mentioned multiple times. It’s how he continually described the group, and what the team has used to get through the last few weeks and play to the best of their ability.
“We can’t control anything and none of the guys in the room or coaches can control anything going on behind the scenes,” said Richardson. “We just knew we had to go out there and do our job and play…I think we are all sick and tired of the Coyotes being out of the conversation.”