‘Bigger than he is’: Goligoski’s veteran leadership fueling fight through Coyotes’ playoff race

Arizona Coyotes defenseman Alex Goligoski has found his rhythm in April, feeling “more comfortable” as an offensive weapon and veteran leader during the Honda West Division playoff race. (Photo by Alina Nelson/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Through the rough patches this season, the Arizona Coyotes have called upon their leaders to make sense of the team’s troubles.

Veteran defenseman Alex Goligoski is often summoned after tough defeats, answering the media’s questions in a meaningful manner to reinforce his team’s confidence.

However, following a 4-0 victory over the Los Angeles Kings Saturday night at Staples Center, Goligoski took center stage to share his impressions on an impressive road performance.

“You can use these situations either way,” said Goligoski, who collected two assists for his third multi-point game of the pandemic-shortened season. “If you see that team lose, it gives you juice. Anything you can do to get that chip on your shoulder or that extra motivation, that’s valuable.”

Over the past month, Goligoski, 35, has turned into one of the Coyotes’ key contributors on the blue line, earning more ice time with extended special teams shifts.

In the midst of a tight playoff race in the Honda West Division where Arizona trails the St. Louis Blues by one point, Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet has not been afraid to insert Goligoski in any situation, most notably during his recent scoring surge.

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“Goose (Goligoski) all year has been a very consistent guy for us,” Tocchet said. “We played him a lot. His heart is there. He’s always going to be there for you. Goose is a smaller guy, but he plays bigger than he is.”

In his fifth season with Arizona, Goligoski has found a comfortable playing style as a top-pairing option in Tocchet’s defensive corps.

Although he doesn’t own a “C” or an “A” on his uniform, Goligoski is seen by his teammates as a leader every night, blocking shots and jumping into transitional sequences.
But, Goligoski isn’t just a leader on the ice. His veteran presence is felt in the locker room, too.

“He always prepares the same way and he’s a very consistent player, a guy we rely on a lot,” Coyotes defenseman Jakob Chychrun said. “Being his defensive partner for most of the year, we’ve had great conversations on a daily basis. It’s tough to give a whole spill, but you’re always trying to soak in those moments and opportunities with guys like him.”

Following a condensed training camp in January, Goligoski began the year on a dry spell, tallying just two assists in his first 32 games.

As the Coyotes have hovered around the .500 mark this season and have hung around the cusp of the playoff picture, Goligoski’s name circulated in rumors around the NHL trade deadline.

Despite the interest in an experienced blue-liner, Coyotes general manager Bill Armstrong held a firm belief in the current core group and ultimately decided to keep Goligoski and the rest of the team together.

“I think maybe the possibility of (Goligoski) getting traded might have weighed on him a little bit,” Armstrong told Fox Sports 910’s Jody Oehler Monday morning. “But he’s really taken his game to the next level, and that’s where you want to be. This is the big moment of the season right now.”

With the deadline distraction set aside, Goligoski’s offensive production rose to a near point-per-game pace during April.

Through 13 April games, the left-shot defenseman has recorded two goals and 12 points while sustaining an increased amount of minutes each game during the stretch.

“I’m getting myself into more offensive situations,” Goligoski said. “I’m feeling more comfortable offensively, too. You get those looks on the power play and you get the puck on your stick a little bit more, which can translate to five-on-five stuff. I just hope to keep that going.”

Goligoski’s average TOI of 22:54 ranks second among Arizona defensemen behind Chychrun, and leads the Coyotes in blocked shots (94) and plus-minus rating (plus-6).

Working alongside Chychrun this season, Goligoski has reaped the rewards of his partner’s playmaking and shooting abilities.

“He’s got a world-class shot,” Goligoski said of Chychrun. “I think he’s just realized how good he is. He can go out there and take control of games with his skill set, his skating, his shot, his ability to defend and move the puck. He’s found it. He can do it all. He can play in all situations. He’s a special guy.”

In his fifth season with the Coyotes, Chychrun currently leads all NHL defensemen with 16 goals, two goals ahead of Edmonton’s Darnell Nurse. Chychrun’s 36 points also rank within the top 10 of the league leaders on the blue line.

Chychrun’s emergence as a 23-year-old star has sparked the jolt of offense from the perimeter. His uncanny release and sneaky shot have forwards looking for opportunities to take advantage of his explosive offensive mindset when driving toward the goal crease.

“He’s deceptive with it, and he knows how to make forth and come out,” said forward Michael Bunting, whose hard-nosed mindset has rewarded him with eight goals in 14 games this season. “Any time he’s shooting, you just know to get to the front of the net.”

Throughout the wavering season, Tocchet’s defensive units have steadily improved, searching for more time and space to begin breakouts efficiently from their own end and get pucks through traffic in shooting lanes.

Arizona’s 27.0 shots per game currently sits 30th in the league, but the goaltending and defensive efforts in front have limited their opponents’ high-quality scoring chances.

“I think our whole defensive core has given us a chance,” Tocchet said. “When they’re playing a simple game, it’s really given us a chance to win. They’re moving the puck up quickly, and I think they’ve done a nice job of doing that.”

During the tightening divisional playoff race, the Coyotes’ postseason chances are constantly changing with recent success of the St. Louis Blues, who have jumped ahead of Arizona with games in hand.

The Coyotes have lived on the edge of the playoff picture all season long, but find themselves in a familiar position where Goligoski, Chychrun and their teammates have been before.

“We’re in crunch time, so we really need to stick with it as a group, and really try to find the positives each night,” Chychrun said. “We need to keep our mood and energy level high.”

Michael Gutnick My-kull Gut-nick
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Michael Gutnick is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in sports broadcast journalism and a minor in mathematics. He is a digital reporter for Cronkite Sports this spring.

Alina Nelson uh-LEE-nuh nEHl-suhn
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Alina Nelson is a sports journalist and photographer who expects to graduate in August 2021. Nelson, who has seven years of photography experience, is working for Cronkite Sports this spring.