GLENDALE, Ariz. — Hours before his team knew its fate, Phoenix defenseman Zbynek Michalek finally declared what everyone else was thinking about this so-called playoff race between the Coyotes and the Dallas Stars.
"It’s like nobody wants it," he said.
Somebody did Friday night.
Dallas came to play in a thorough, 3-0 win over the shorthanded and struggling St. Louis Blues at American Airlines Center. The win clinched the Western Conference’s final playoff spot for the Stars, simultaneously ending the Coyotes’ hopes for that final wild card slot.
"It’s not often you can’t get a win for two weeks and youâre still hanging in there," forward Lauri Korpikoski said.
The Blues entered the game minus six injured forwards, and they weren’t slouches. T.J. Oshie (head), David Backes (foot), Vladimir Tarasenko (hand), Brenden Morrow (foot), Vladimir Sobotka (lower body) and Derek Roy (upper body) all sat this one out, while St. Louis fielded an AHL roster filled out with Friday recalls Adam Cracknell, Keith Aucoin and Ty Rattie.
But while the Coyotes couldn’t overcome such non-playoff juggernauts as Edmonton, Winnipeg and Nashville (not to mention those two earlier losses to the Buffalo Sabres) who were all playing loose with nothing to lose, Dallas saw opportunity and seized it after wasting two prior chances to dust the Coyotes in losses at Carolina and Florida.
The playoff berth is the first for the Stars since 2008. Dallas hasn’t been cold like the Coyotes, who have lost six straight. They’re 8-4 in their last 12 games, but they had to rally from a five-point deficit to catch Phoenix.
Once they did, the Coyotes had no answer, scoring seven goals in this six-game skid that will leave them watching the postseason for a second straight season.
"That’s what happens when you don’t take care of yourselves," coach Dave Tippett said Friday night.
It’s a tough turn of events for a team that was feeling so good nine months ago when the last hurdle for the sale of the team was cleared on a chaotic night in the Glendale City Council chambers. The club re-signed Tippett, GM Don Maloney and goalie Mike Smith, while adding center Mike Ribeiro in free agency.
"We were so happy that we were staying in Phoenix. We wanted to prove that we were a good team and a playoff team," Michalek said. "We had a lot of confidence going into that season that we’ve got what it takes."
Instead, Phoenix will close the year with a pair of meaningless games at Jobing.com Arena against the San Jose Sharks and the Stars, whose mere presence should add salt to the wound of this missed opportunity.
Smith won’t play tomorrow and there is no sense in bringing him back for the season finale with nothing at stake. Maybe goalie-of-the-future Mark Visentin will even get a look because from this point forward, it’s all about the future.
General manager Don Maloney said at the trade deadline that the playoffs are the "bare minimum expectation" for this franchise now that is has ownership. And those same owners made it clear they were more than willing to spend at the deadline to add offensive pieces.
The Coyotes’ ills up front won’t be solved overnight, and the free-agent class this summer is small, which could drive up the prices, but the ownership group can make a big statement to the fan base by following up on its pledge to improve the team this summer.
It took more than half a season to get Smith back on track and get the team playing Tippett-style defense, but the club lacks difference makers up front — players who can erase mistakes and carry a team when it’s not on itâs A-game.
It can be said definitively now. This is not a playoff roster. And that is unacceptable. Change is coming.