GLENDALE, Ariz. – When the Los Angeles Kings took the ice Monday against Calgary, Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said a silent prayer.
“I don’t want three-point games,” Tippett said. “A long, drawn-out game maybe, but not three points.”
The twists and turns of the NHL schedule are always factors in a team’s success. If you catch a team playing the second game of back-to-back contests, or its third game in four nights, as the Coyotes did in a 5-2 win over the Kings on Tuesday, you have a better chance for success.
But in the lockout-condensed 48-game schedule, where every game is against a Western Conference opponent vying for one of the same eight playoff spots, those breaks are even more important.
“It’s like each month is that last-month playoff push,” Tippett said. “You’re seeing people scoreboard watching earlier. You’re seeing injuries that teams have. Are you catching them at the right time? Are you catching a team tired on back-to-backs? Every game, it just seems like the importance is magnified.”
Making matters worse is the fact that nobody in the Western Conference appears to be falling off the pace. In the past, you could count on a couple teams like Columbus and youth-laden Edmonton, but the Blue Jackets, whom the Coyotes will visit on Saturday, are 5-0-1 in their last six games, while the Oilers have won their last two, becoming one of just two clubs thus far to defeat the Chicago Blackhawks in regulation.
Entering Thursday’s play, last-place Calgary and Colorado (24 points) were just four points behind the Minnesota Wild for the conference’s final playoff spot; the bottom 13 teams in the 15-team conference were separated by just six points, with only Chicago and Anaheim enjoying comfortable leads.
“That’s what you’re going to get in a condensed schedule,” Tippett said. “When you go into a season, the teams that missed the playoffs the year before, you know they’ve got a real passion to get back in or take strides forward. “
And when there are less games to create separation, everybody believes they are in the hunt (a fact that will likely prevent most clubs from being active sellers at the April 3 trade deadline).
That’s why the Coyotes had circled their past two games against Dallas and L.A. as vital wins, especially after dropping the first game of a three-game homestand to St. Louis, a team they will try to pay back on Thursday at Scottrade Center. L.A. was tired Wednesday, and the Coyotes knew it.
“It’s happened to us, and it’s going to happen to us, so when you get the advantage in your favor, you want to take advantage of it,” captain Shane Doan said. “It was something that we talked about.”
There is one additional factor ramping up the sense of urgency in the Coyotes locker room. Following Tuesday’s win, the Coyotes have only eight more home games the rest of the season. Fourteen of their final 22 games are on the road, including the next four, and two of those 14 come in back-to-back sets, starting with next week’s two-game set against the Kings in Los Angeles.
The Coyotes have been a good road team the past couple of years, but that is no guarantee of future success and the club is just 3-5-2 away from home this season.
“Last year is gone, and we can’t think about that any more,” forward Mikkel Boedker said. “We have our work cut out for us, that’s for sure. But one good thing about the road is it can make you focus more when you’re away from all the distractions. You know you have to play a simple game to be successful.”