GLENDALE – The NHL season is now officially on hold and many of its players headed to Sochi today to compete in the 2014 Winter Olympics for the next few weeks.
Minus their five Olympians, the Coyotes returned to Phoenix early this morning as a ninth-place, non-playoff team after a 2-1 loss to the Dallas Stars on Saturday night.
The Coyotes and Stars have identical records (27-21-10) and number of points (64), but if the Stanley Cup Playoffs started today – which, of course, they don’t – Dallas would qualify for the Western Conference's second wildcard berth over Phoenix because it has one more ROW win; ROW stands for total number of regulation plus overtime wins. Vancouver (63 points), Winnipeg (62 points) and Nashville (60 points) are close behind.
"We’re out of it right now but when you look at the standings, we’re right there with a couple other teams," forward Radim Vrbata told reporters after Saturday’s game. "Hopefully we can regroup now, and whoever’s going to be the best out of those three, four teams is probably going to make it. We have to make sure it’s going to be us."
The NHL schedule resumes on Feb. 25. The Coyotes, minus their five Olympians, will return to practice on Feb. 19 and play the first of their remaining 24 games on Feb. 27 at Winnipeg.
"We’re probably about where we should be," Head Coach Dave Tippett told reporters after Saturday’s loss. "I think we're better than that, but that's where we are."
The Coyotes have played great hockey at times and beat some elite teams – Pittsburgh and Chicago – recently. But they have struggled against teams near or below them in the standings and have failed to put together a lengthy winning streak since early November.
"We’ve had nights where I thought we’ve performed well and others where I thought we took a step back, and that’s kind of been the M.O. of our season," Tippett said. "We haven’t played with enough consistency to put us in the top eight. We’re hovering around it. Hopefully the last stretch drive we can get in there and play some consistent hockey to give ourselves a playoff chance."
The Coyotes last won consecutive games on Jan. 16 (vs. Vancouver) and Jan. 18 (vs. New Jersey). Since then, Phoenix has had four chances to win two straight games but failed each time.
* Goalie Mike Smith heads into the break - and to the Olympics - with renewed confidence.
Smith stopped 31 of 33 shots vs. Dallas on Saturday and 120 of the last 125 shots he has faced. That’s a .960 save percentage.
"I think he’s playing the way we know he can play," Vrbata said. "Hopefully he's going to stay like that and we can do a little better for him."
Smith, a former Dallas Stars goalie, received a strong ovation on Saturday night when the public address announcer at American Airlines Center listed the players in the game heading to the Winter Olympics. Joining Smith, who will represent Canada, on the trip to Sochi today are teammates Oliver Ekman-Larsson (Sweden), Martin Hanzal (Czech Republic), Lauri Korpikoski (Finland) and Zbynek Michalek (Czech Republic).
* Center Antoine Vermette assisted on Vrbata’s goal on Saturday to extend his point streak to a career-high 10 games. During that span he has notched eight goals and five assists. Vermette’s streak is the longest current streak in the NHL.
* Defenseman Derek Morris did not play in Saturday's game because of an upper-body injury.
* Defenseman Michael Stone played in his 100th NHL game on Saturday.
* Center Kyle Chipchura played in his 56th game of the season on Saturday. That sets his career-high for games played in an NHL season.
* Here is a breakdown of the Coyotes final 24 games of the season:
Home games: 11
Road games: 13
Games vs. teams currently in playoff position: 13
Games vs. team currently not in playoff position: 11
Games vs. Western Conference teams: 13
Games vs. Eastern Conference teams: 11
Longest homestand: Three games (March 2-6)
Longest road trip: Four games (March 8-13)
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