Off The Post: Seven Games Left Before Break
GLENDALE -- So here we are. Seven games remain before the Olympic break and the Coyotes are well within striking distance of a playoff spot. As I write this, they're four points back of Minnesota and Vancouver, with games in hand on both. One thing has become very apparent in the Western Conference this season though: every team somehow wins every night. It defies the laws of science, yet it keeps happening. And that makes the next two weeks extremely pivotal for Dave Tippett's club. Not only would it be nice to hit the break with some momentum, they need to seize this opportunity to grab points, shove a few rival playoff contenders down in the standings and re-establish themselves as a second-half team. On top of that, a strong push into February could give them a clearer idea of what – if anything – they need to do as the March 5 trade deadline approaches. In other words, the next 14 days are huge. So let's take a quick look at what exactly is on the line in each game...
Vancouver (Jan. 26): I'm guessing I don't have to explain the significance of this one. At least I hope not. The Canucks are right in front of Phoenix in the Pacific, and they're one of two wild card teams the Desert Dogs are trying to run down in the West. They’re always tough, and a healthy Roberto Luongo makes them even tougher. But they have been slipping lately, dropping nine of their last 12 overall, while apparently joining a fight club last week. In case you missed it, a major kerfuffle broke out with Calgary on Jan. 18 in a game that included 204 penalty minutes dished out and left Head Coach John Tortorella suspended until early February for doing John Tortorella things. Phoenix is 2-0-1 against Vancouver already this season. A third victory would vault them right back into the middle of the playoff race.
Los Angeles (Jan. 28): Any number of factors can create a great rivalry: geography, history, playing in the same division, past postseason meetings... the list goes on. Coyotes-Kings has all of that, plus the special bonus that these guys just don't really like each other very much. LA is another team Phoenix is trying to hunt down in the Pacific, so this has the potential to be a four-point outing. It will also be one of the Kings first games back following their outdoor showdown with Anaheim in Dodger Stadium, so maybe they'll be thrown off by playing hockey indoors.
Buffalo (Jan. 30): If you believe in karma, the Coyotes are probably owed a victory over the Sabres. The last time they met, Buffalo caught Phoenix at the end of a four-game road trip and pulled out a weird win when the puck fell out of the sky and into Mike Smith's pants... as he was backing into the net... in overtime. Just read that last sentence again. You can't make this stuff up.
Pittsburgh (Feb. 1): The Penguins haven’t been in Arizona since Nov. 6, 2010, and they’re playing as good as anyone right now. With Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin leading the way, they're arguably the most entertaining team in the NHL to watch. Of course, the Coyotes don’t care about any of that, and they won't be watching them anyway. They need these two points just as much as any others, and they tend to play some of their best hockey against elite opponents. Plus, there’s a town hall meeting at the tailgate before the game and, really, the stakes are raised anytime there’s a town hall meeting. That's just a universal truth in any aspect of life.
Dallas (Feb. 4 and Feb. 8): Hey, remember the Stars? You know, the team Phoenix used to play, like, 20 times a year, with every game seemingly coming down to the final seconds? Well, they’ve switched divisions, added Tyler Seguin and made their jerseys really green since then. They’re also right next to the Coyotes in the playoff race, and suddenly show up on the schedule three times in the final 27 games. It’s likely only one of these two teams will find their way into the postseason, so these are pivotal contests.
Chicago (Feb. 7): Here's a confusing stat: Phoenix has been outshot in each of their last three wins. I'm not sure exactly what that means or how it all fits together, but I think it's a good thing - basically, it's like the feeling I had after watching American Hustle. Fortunately, the Blackhawks outshoot everyone, so maybe that will help the Coyotes' cause here. Phoenix is the last team to eliminate Chicago from the playoffs (first round, 2012) – a fact that isn’t lost on Joel Quenneville's group. In general, very few clubs enjoy success against the 'Hawks, who have just 16 regulation losses in their last 101 regular-season games. The Desert Dogs have been the exception though, going 13-6-4 against Chicago under Tippett. A win on Feb. 7 - with members of the 1980 Miracle on Ice squad in attendance – would be the perfect way to wrap up the home slate before the Olympic break.