Coyotes, Panthers brace for special-teams battle

NHL Hockey
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Maybe it’s time the Arizona Coyotes end their postseason drought that dates back to 2012.

Maybe it’s time the Florida Panthers end their lengthy playoff-series-win drought that dates back to 1996.

The Panthers are set to open a four-game homestand against the Coyotes on Tuesday, and both teams are coming in with high hopes after ending the weekend in playoff position.

The Coyotes have won three straight games, but they now play six of their next eight contests on the road. In addition, the Coyotes appear to have lost goalie Antti Raanta to a lower-body injury during Saturday’s 6-2 home win over the Philadelphia Flyers.

Arizona’s other veteran goalie, Darcy Kuemper, is already on the injured list with a lower-body ailment.

That means athletic netminder Adin Hill, 23, likely will make his 16th career start. Hill, who was Arizona’s third-round pick in 2015, has career numbers that include a 2.89 goals-against average and a .901 save percentage.

“(Raanta) has been unbelievable for us,” Coyotes winger Clayton Keller said. “But Hill has been great as well.”

The Coyotes rank third in the NHL with an average of 2.50 goals allowed per game. They have one of the deepest and most balanced group of defensemen, led by captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson as well as Alex Goligoski, Jakob Chychrun, Jordan Oesterle and ex-Panther Jason Demers.

Top-four defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson is out due to a lower-body injury, but the Coyotes are deep enough to withstand his absence.

That group should receive a stern challenge from a Panthers team that ranks fifth in the NHL in goals per game (3.52).

The Panthers, who beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-1 on Sunday, are led by winger Jonathan Huberdeau, who tops the team with 57 points.

He has 20 points in his past 10 games.

Defensively, the Panthers have mostly used goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who signed a seven-year, $70 million contract in July. But Bobrovsky was pulled after allowing three goals on just seven shots in a 3-2 loss to the host Buffalo Sabres on Saturday.

Rookie backup Chris Driedger came in and stopped all 11 shots he faced. Driedger then made 31 saves in Sunday’s win over the Penguins.

“They guys did a great job in front of me,” Driedger said of his defense.

It will be interesting to see which goalie coach Joel Quenneville will select on Tuesday.

Bobrovsky is 15-12-4 with a 3.33 GAA and an .895 save percentage. Driedger is 4-1-0 with a 1.82 GAA and a .944 save percentage. Driedger has also stopped 42 of the past 43 shots on goal he has faced.

Either way, the Panthers will have the advantage of home ice, where they are 13-7-2 this season.

But the Coyotes are one of the top four road teams in the NHL so far this season, sporting a 13-6-3 record.

The special-teams battle to watch would be the Panthers’ power play, which ranks eighth in the NHL, against Arizona’s fifth-rated penalty kill.

Offensively, the Coyotes are not a high-powered unit. Center Nick Schmaltz leads the team with 28 assists but has just seven goals. Second-year winger Conor Garland leads the team with 14 goals, which is already his career high.

Former Panthers first-round pick Lawson Crouse, 22, has nine goals and five assists and would surely love to have a big game against Florida.

Coyotes winger Phil Kessel — who is in his first year in Arizona — is off to a slow start. He has nine goals and 15 assists in 44 games. He averaged 87 points the past two years with the Penguins.

–Field Level Media

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