GLENDALE — When the sixth goal rustled the net, it felt like the Coyotes had hit rock bottom.
Arizona, 9-8-3 at the time, was on the verge of losing its second game in a row to the Colorado Avalanche. Although they had fallen to the Avalanche by just a goal the previous night, Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet called out his team after the game for their lack of effort and poor play.
“We had some guys competing, but we had some guys that weren’t,” Tocchet said after Friday’s game. “They didn’t compete.”
The next night wasn’t any better. The Coyotes had more energy, but were still blown out in their own arena. The final score, 6-2. Arizona had dropped to sixth place in the West Division, leading forward Clayton Keller to acknowledge, “We all (have) to be better, myself included.”
Colorado – 6
Arizona – 2
After a competitive 2 periods, Colorado destroys Arizona in the 3rd.
Probably the most AZ has been out of a game (at least eye test wise) this season at any point.
Wednesday, AZ heads to LA to face the Kings.
— Koki Riley (@KokiRiley) February 28, 2021
The defeat was painful, arguably inexcusable. But the Coyotes were missing a big piece to their puzzle on Saturday night. A player who was their leading points producer and third-leading goal scorer.
The player was Conor Garland.
“We miss him a lot obviously,” Coyotes forward Christian Fischer said Monday. “He’s, you know, having one heck of a year.”
Despite pleading to his coach before the game, Tocchet kept Garland out of the lineup after the forward took a hard hit the night before. Tocchet wanted to make sure that his top offensive threat would be ready for Wednesday’s matchup in Los Angeles – Arizona would have three days off after Saturday’s matchup.
So when Garland did return for Arizona’s game against the Kings, the forward was in full-stride, notching his 20th point and 13th assist of the season. Garland became the first Coyotes player since Martin Hanzal in 2013-14 to score 20 points in 21 games or less.
His energy was contagious, his playmaking was much needed. Garland’s return helped guide the Coyotes to their first win since the Colorado debacle, a tight 3-2 road victory over the Kings.
“He’s not a one-on-one player. He’s a guy that will distribute the puck,” Tocchet said after the Coyotes’ win on Wednesday. “He’s done that consistently this year for us.”
As seen on Friday night against Colorado, the 5-foot-10, 165 pound forward hasn’t been afraid to put his body on the line. It’s the way he plays, pedal to the metal.
“(Garland) doesn’t play a superstar type of game. He works really hard and has the skill to put up those, you’ve seen it this year, plays that he’s making,” Fischer said. “He’s one of the smaller guys in the NHL, which is no (small) feat. He stands up to anybody. … He’s just a hard-nosed guy.”
“(Garland’s) a competitor … he never gives up on a play,” Coyotes defenseman Jakob Chychrun said. “He’s almost like the heartbeat of our team … (when) he’s battling and competing it’s contagious.”
The aggressiveness and borderline recklessness that the Scituate, Massachusetts, native plays with isn’t by accident or purely based on effort. Garland’s dynamic play scares opponents.
He leads Arizona in assists and offensive point shares to go along with his lofty point and goal totals. For those reasons, opponents view Garland as the Coyotes’ top offensive threat – hence the bumps and bruises.
But yet, Arizona’s dynamic forward continues to produce.
“(Garland) you know is a big point producer for us on our team,” Tocchet said after Wednesday’s victory. “Having him in the lineup, it just gives the other team a little bit of a different game plan and helps us, you know, spread the wealth (offensively) a little bit too.”
For Arizona to truly be a postseason contender in 2021, Garland will need help and attention diverted away from his already stellar play.
Forwards Christian Dvorak (9) and Phil Kessel (8) are Arizona’s two leading goal scorers. Both have obviously shown an ability to put the puck in the back of the net, but neither has done it consistently. Dvorak has scored just two goals in his last 10 games while Kessel had been on an 11-game goalless streak before his recent surge of production.
Others have contributed, like defenseman Jakob Chychrun who has 11 assists, but Garland has been Arizona’s only consistent offensive threat.
The Coyotes are 25th in the NHL in goals per contest, they need more playmakers and goalscorers outside of Garland.
Last Saturday night showed that to be true.