PHOENIX – Arizona Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet is clever with his catchphrases.
Ahead of the team’s first extended road trip of the season, Tocchet tinkered with his line combinations and, in the process, came up with a new nickname for the team’s top forward line of Clayton Keller, Nick Schmaltz and Conor Garland.
“It’s a short leash line, that’s what I call them,” Tocchet said on Feb. 2. “I love the guys, but they have to understand to play the right way.”
They did exactly that, giving Tocchet no reason to yank their leash.
The “Short Leash Line” provided the punch on offense, producing nine goals and 20 points and propelling the Coyotes to four wins in the seven-game series against the St. Louis Blues.
The complications of playing hockey during the COVID-19 pandemic led the Coyotes and Blues to the scheduling quirk of seven straight games against each other, a first in NHL regular-season history.
“It was a fun series,” said Keller, who scored the lone goal in a 1-0 victory Monday at Gila River Arena. “Almost every game was tight and it had a playoff-like atmosphere. It was a step in the right direction and we finally get to play another team.”
The Keller-Schmaltz-Garland line probably wouldn’t mind playing an eighth consecutive game against the Blues, if they had the choice, given their unbreakable chemistry against a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
Since their first full game as a line on Feb. 2, Garland – the team’s leader in points with 14 – and Schmaltz have each scored three goals and seven points. Keller tallied three goals and six points.
“The three of us, we’re all really close friends. So that helps a ton,” Garland said. “In the summer, you talk a lot to each other, and I think we each had a sense that we took a pretty big step as players.”
The trio find communication to be the most effective aspect of their chemistry. When they weren’t on the ice stickhandling through the Blues’ defense and top forwards, Schmaltz, Garland and Keller were breaking down their previous shifts and making appropriate adjustments amidst the heat of the battle.
“We’re talking about the little things,” Keller said. “Me and ‘G’ (Garland) talked about it. In the first game, we had our chance in the slot. He tried to shoot it and it rolled on him. I was like, ‘Hey, bump that back.’ Next game, we got rewarded for it on the same exact play and he ends up scoring.”
Tocchet has referred to taking advantage of the “big moments” throughout the season. Arguably, the biggest moment of the series came in the dying seconds of Game 4 at Enterprise Center.
Keller, the hometown kid from Chesterfield, Missouri, buried the game-tying goal with seven-tenths of a second to play in regulation thanks to a little inspiration from his linemate.
THIS IS WHY YOU PLAY ALL 60 MINUTES. pic.twitter.com/QrwQB7awSV
— Arizona Coyotes (@ArizonaCoyotes) February 9, 2021
“Right before I came out of the box, ‘G’ goes, ‘Get right to the net.’” Keller said after the 4-3 shootout victory. “I kept that in the back of my head. Dvo (Christian Dvorak) makes an unbelievable play behind-the-back pass right on my tape. I put it in the open net, so it was definitely a great play by him and the guys out there.”
Keller has five goals and 10 assists in his career against the Blues, the most points he has scored against any team in the NHL.
The Keller-Schmaltz-Garland line had no trouble racking up the numbers on the scoresheet, however it’s not just the offense that has impressed Tocchet.
The line is managing its defensive duties, hustling back in transition and breaking up plays with their sticks in passing, shooting lanes and board battles. In the 72:45 of five-on-five play as a line, they were on the ice for seven goals scored by the Coyotes versus just two goals by the Blues.
Defending when they didn’t have the puck is the message Tocchet was delivering to his “Short Leash Line” when he referred to playing the “right way.”
“When things might get hairy out there and we need them to be the line that settles us down, not to put gas on the fire,” Tocchet said. “I thought in this series, they didn’t put gas on the fire. They put water on fire when things were going bad for us. Those guys really did a nice job when it comes to pushing the panic button, I didn’t see that from that line.”
And Tocchet has noticed improvement in their effort away from the puck.
— Michael Gutnick (@michaelgutnick) February 13, 2021
“I put them out there the last four minutes because I trust them tonight,” Tocchet said after the Coyotes prevented the Blues’ push late in Game 3. “They’re earning my trust in those situations, especially Garland. I don’t think he played last year on empty-net goals. I’m putting him out there because Garland has structurally got a lot better since last year.”
Sure, the Coyotes’ top line is not known for its size. Keller and Garland stand in at 5-foot-10 while Schmaltz reaches the 6-foot mark.
But for what they lack in height, they make up for with their speed, skill and strength in stickhandling.
“We might not be the most physical guys, but I think if we’re moving our feet and stripping pucks from guys and forcing turnovers, we can make plays once we get the puck,” Schmaltz said.
Keller echoed that sentiment.
“Whenever we’re moving our feet, that’s when we have to make the other team defend, and sometimes they’ll grab us down or take a tripping penalty,” Keller said. “We’re all super excited when we’re out there together and we’re having a good shift in the offensive zone. I think that’s something we can keep going.”
The “Short Leash Line” has accepted embracing different roles that come with defending and staying strong on the puck. It’s been a winning formula for the Coyotes, who have climbed to fourth place in the West Division standings with a 7-6-2 record.
“I think if we play hard and compete, it doesn’t really matter what zone you’re in,” Garland said. “You’re going to play the right way. That’s what’s happening, we’ve all bought in.”
The offensive skills of Keller, Schmaltz and Garland are cut-and-dry, but the line’s ability to do the right things away from the puck has made it one of most effective lines in the league this season.
And that leash is certainly getting longer.