Last month, the Phoenix Coyotes were the hottest team in the NHL. By failing to duplicate that impressive surge in March, their playoff hopes may be setting in a competitive Western Conference race.
In the NHL’s hottest city, the Phoenix Coyotes may have found themselves staring into a setting sun.
The Coyotes remained clinging to the eighth spot in the Western Conference on after Monday's games. Their 87 points are the same as the Dallas Stars. Phoenix also has to worry about being just a point above the Los Angeles Kings and Colorado Avalanche. The San Jose Sharks took over first in the Pacific Division and now have 88 points and the No. 3 seed.
The Coyotes have five games left to play. Those include just one head-to-head meeting remaining against the other four clubs, a Thursday showdown with the Sharks.
That will be the first game of a three-game homestand that will be their last of the season and could define their final push.
"There's no room for error now," left wing Lauri Korpikoski told reporters after Sunday’s 4-0 loss to St. Louis. "There's five games left in the season. It's not like we can have a so-so week and be better the next week. There might not be a next week."
Since a superb 11-0-1 February, the Coyotes have won just four of 14 games (4-6-4) this month. In those 14 March games, they have scored first just three times, including Saturday against San Jose, when Phoenix blew a pair of one-goal leads in a 4-3 shootout loss.
“It’s tough. We’ve been in that spot too many times. We’re spending too much energy chasing from behind,” Korpikoski said following a 4-3 shootout loss at Dallas last Tuesday.
In two critical opportunities to gain ground, Phoenix had to settle for mitigated losses in what turned out to be three-point games.
“We found a way to get a point and now we move on,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said Tuesday.
Their only win of the week came against Colorado on Thursday, as they fended off an Avalanche rally to win 3-2 after taking an early 3-0 lead.
It was the only game in which leading goal scorer Radim Vrbata played last week as his presence and effectiveness have been limited by a lower-body injury. The game also marked the first game of captain Shane Doan’s three-game suspension for elbowing Dallas Stars forward Jamie Benn.
“We’re lacking a few bodies right now, that would be one we couldn’t miss,” Tippett said just before the suspension was handed down.
"There's never an excuse for not winning. The one thing we realize around here is we can only do it if we do it together," Tippett told reporters after the Colorado win.
A recent bright spot for Phoenix has been defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who has shouldered an increasingly heavy load with injuries and shuffling on the Coyotes' blue line.
“He’s a 20-year-old kid who’s playing enormous minutes and playing against the other team’s top players every shift," Tippett said in Dallas. "He’s turning into a phenomenal young player."
Ray Whitney also has remained a beacon of consistency. He continues to lead the team in scoring and has persevered brilliantly through a tough stretch for his club.
Whether it will be a promising young player like Ekman-Larsson or one of their many veterans like Whitney and Doan, someone on the Coyotes roster will need to give them a late lift this season.
“When you have this many games left, you have to try to seize every opportunity,” Tippett told reporters Sunday. “Even though we had a tough turnaround, we've got to go out there and find ways to get points."