|Wild face surprisingly hot Coyotes|
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- As the NHL season winds down, the Minnesota Wild are getting repeated up-close looks at some of the Western Conference's hottest teams.
The Colorado Avalanche. The Vegas Golden Knights. The Arizona Coyotes.
The Arizona Coyotes?
Maybe they're doing it a bit quietly after all but vanishing from the NHL radar following a terrible start in which they won only seven of their first 36 games, but the Coyotes (23-36-11) have been one of the conference's best teams during the second half of the season.
They're 11-4-2 in their last 17 games -- by comparison, it took them 48 games starting the season to win 11 games -- and they'll try to beat the Wild for the third time since Feb. 8 when they play Saturday night at Gila River Arena.
Arizona could get back starting goalie Antti Raanta, who sat out the last six games with a lower-body injury. Raanta (15-15-6) has been injured and out for 25 of the Coyotes' 70 games, but he's won seven of his last eight decisions. He had shutouts of Edmonton and Anaheim in two of his last four starts, plus a 2-1 win over Ottawa in his last start March 3.
"We'll decide (Saturday), but I think he's ready to go," Arizona coach Rick Tocchet said following practice Friday. "I think he's looking pretty good."
Arizona is 14-19-4 in its home arena after winning only one game there until Nov. 24, or about six weeks after the season started. But the Coyotes began to turn their season around Jan. 4, when they beat the reigning Western Conference champion Nashville Predators at home 3-2, and they're 14-9-6 during this calendar year.
The Coyotes are 5-2-1 in March and 4-1 in their last five home games.
They defeated the Wild 4-3 on the road in overtime on Feb. 8, then repeated that victory by defeating them 5-3 at Gila River Arena on March 1. Maybe losing to Arizona was what the Wild needed to right themselves; they responded to that Feb. 8 loss by winning seven of their next nine, and they won three of four following the March 1 defeat.
The Wild will be playing the second half of what has become one of the NHL's more difficult back-to-backs -- Vegas and Arizona -- after beating the Golden Knights 4-2 on Friday night as backup goalie Alex Stalock made 26 saves and Charlie Coyle and Matt Dumba scored key goals.
"That's the way we need to come out every game," Coyle said. "To work that hard and get rewarded feels great."
The Wild (40-24-7) won for the first time in three games but the fourth time in six games, and they now own a three-point edge over the Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars for third place in the Central Division. They've opened that lead despite losing to Colorado by scores of 5-1 and 7-1 in a span of less than two weeks.
The Coyotes will be playing the fourth game of a five-game homestand that ends Monday against the Calgary Flames. They're coming off a 3-2 loss Thursday to the NHL-leading Predators in which they led 2-1 going into the third period.
Afterward, Tocchet praised defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, saying, "He's playing like he wants to play in the playoffs. Unfortunately, this year it's not going to happen."
Despite that loss to Nashville, multiple Coyotes are beginning to play as if they want to play in the playoffs. It's not going to happen, but they can prevent some other teams from getting there.