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Keller 'doing the right things' and leading Coyotes push for the post-season

A successful rookie season had opposing defenders keying in on Coyotes standout Clayton Keller, but the sophomore scorer has adjusted to the extra attention and is finding his groove as Arizona pushes its way into the Western Conference wild-card race.

The good news is that in his second season, Clayton Keller is tied for the team lead in goals and once again has a firm grip on top of the Arizona Coyotes points list. The bad news is Clayton Keller has 11 goals and 34 points. Hey, it could be worse. The Coyotes could be the Anaheim Ducks or the Los Angeles Kings, whose leading scorers have only 32 points. But there’s no team in the league whose leading goal scorer has fewer than the 11 that Keller, Christian Fischer and Brad Richardson have.

Unlike the Kings and the Ducks, things are actually looking up for the Coyotes and Keller. The former is 5-1-1 in its past seven games going into its last game before the all-star break and the latter is heating up at the right time of the season. After 48 games last season, the Coyotes were 11-28-9 and already hopelessly out of the playoff race. Thanks to a 4-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs Sunday night, the Coyotes are a much pluckier 22-22-4 and hanging around in the turtle race that has become the pursuit of the two wild-card spots in the Western Conference.

It’s probably fair to say a little more was expected of both Keller and the Coyotes this season, but with exactly five weeks to go before the trade deadline, the annual fire sale in Arizona will not take place. Could the Coyotes instead be buyers at the deadline? Likely not, but they should be able to at least play meaningful games into April with this group, which is led offensively by Keller.

“The second year is always tough,” Keller said. “Teams are going to play you harder and you’re going to get the best matchups on the road. I think the last couple of weeks I’ve played the best hockey of the year so far. I’ve been shooting the puck more and when you do that, passes open up. And a lot of work in the shooting room after games trying to get as many reps as you can. It gives you some confidence and the puck starts to roll your way.”

Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet didn’t come out and say that Keller perhaps allowed his rookie success to go to his head and took things too lightly. Check that. He actually did. Tocchet warned Keller prior to the season that things would not come as easily to him as they did in his rookie year when he scored 65 points and finished third in rookie-of-the-year voting, largely because he wouldn’t be surprising teams anymore and he would be drawing all the tough checking assignments, but you know kids. “I think at the beginning of the year he thought it was going to be a lot easier,” Tocchet said. “But that happens to young guys. He’s a great kid and he’s starting to play well for us.”

Keller agrees, saying that the improved play has come with him doing the right things. He’ll have to take 101 shots in his final 34 games to match his total of 212 last season, but with nine shots in his past two games and goals in each to show for his efforts, Keller will never abandon his pass-first mentality, but he realizes he has to be less predictable to be successful. “I’m an unselfish player, but the thing is when I shoot the puck, more passes open up and teams start to back off,” Keller said. “But when you’re passing, they can just say, ‘All right, he’s not going to shoot, he’s just going to pass it.’ ”

Keller is never going to be a big scorer. His career shooting percentage is just 10.5, but he proved Sunday night that he’s capable of putting the puck in the back of the net, getting behind Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly before going bar down over the right shoulder of goalie Fredrik Andersen. Keller said he originally wanted to go glove side, “kind of like a pool shot,” before changing his mind. It appears he made the right choice. With the offense coming a little easier and more consistently now, Keller will need to lead the goal-starved Coyotes if they hope to make a push for the playoffs.

“He’s playing a complete game. He’s playing a 200-foot game,” Tocchet said of Keller. “He’s doing the right things. When you’re not scoring sometimes, it’s not like he’s a cheater, but you try to do the right things, but you want to score so bad you do the wrong things. And I think the last two or three weeks he’s doing the right things and it’s really helped.”

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