Pacific co-leaders Coyotes, Golden Knights face off in Vegas

NHL Hockey

The Arizona Coyotes begin their post-holiday break with a share of first place in the Pacific Division heading into Saturday night’s game with the Golden Knights in Las Vegas. But head coach Rick Tocchet says his team, which had the worst record in the Western Conference two seasons ago, can’t afford to be satisfied.

“Start of training camp, if you said at Christmas time, (we’d be in) first place, I think everybody would be pretty happy,” Tocchet told reporters Friday afternoon. “But you can only be happy for one minute because it’s really hard to maintain staying at the top because people chase you (and) some teams that weren’t playing well are starting to play really well now. So there’s just a lot of variables right now.”

One of those variables is a Golden Knights team that enters the contest tied with Arizona for first place after a so-so start to the season. Vegas missed a chance to take over sole possession of first place on Friday night when it lost 4-3 at Anaheim.

Arizona, which has two games in hand on the Golden Knights, has the best road record in the Pacific (13-5-3) but one of the blemishes was a 2-1 shootout loss to Vegas on Nov. 29 at T-Mobile Arena. The Coyotes scored a 4-1 victory over the Golden Knights on Oct. 10 in the teams’ only meeting thus far in Glendale, Ariz.

“It’s a real positive first half for me,” Tocchet said. “There’s some points I think we left out there. The one thing is, I think the players recognize it, which I like. It’s not like everybody is patting each other on the back, we’re in first place or whatever (and) we’re there now.

“I think we’re in a mode that it’s going to be even harder to stay (in first) or be up there. Number two, as individuals, if you felt you haven’t had a great year what are you going to do the next 40 (games). For a guy who played good or really good, how do you maintain that? Those are the individual things that I like to talk to players about.”

Next up for the Coyotes is a Vegas team that comes in off back-to-back losses for the first time in more than three weeks. Against the Ducks on Friday, the Golden Knights gave up three goals — including two on the power play — in the span of 1:37 in the second period and trailed 4-1 late in the game before defenseman Nate Schmidt scored twice in less than two minutes, the final one with just 5.7 seconds remaining.

“It’s hard when you put yourself in that type of position,” Schmidt said afterward. “It’s hard to climb back. (Anaheim doesn’t) give up a lot through the neutral zone. They don’t give you a lot of speed to make plays, and they have a good goaltender (John Gibson, who had 26 saves). It makes it harder when you’re trying to climb yourself out of a hole.”

With a first-place showdown with Arizona less than 24 hours away, the Golden Knights said they would quickly turn their focus on the Coyotes.

“Just forget about it, move on,” right wing Reilly Smith said of the loss at Anaheim. “They’re crucial games, especially at the start of breaks and end of breaks. They end up being big difference-makers at the end of the season, so we have to even it up tomorrow night. It’s a big game for us, and we have to come out with the right mindset.”

–Field Level Media

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