Playoff fate no longer in Coyotes’ hands
The Coyotes weren’t eliminated from the NHL playoff race on Tuesday. The one point they earned in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Blue Jackets kept them within striking distance of the Dallas Stars for the final wild card spot in the Western Conference.
But there is a simple, stark reality that tempers any remaining hope: The Coyotes have lost a season-high five straight games at the most critical time of the year. They’re not exactly striking the pose of a playoff team.
"The objective right now is to get two (points)," forward Shane Doan told reporters after the game in Columbus. "We need to be better. We’re disappointed — incredibly disappointed."
Tuesday’s loss wasn’t a poorly played game. The Coyotes had good push for long stretches and they outshot the Blue Jackets 32-30.
They even got goals from Martin Erat and Doan to break slumps, and a late miracle from Oliver Ekman-Larsson to force overtime. But a bad third goal allowed by Thomas Greiss and costly turnovers that ended up in the back of the net spelled another one-point night for a team that hasn’t shown the consistent ability to overcome mistakes.
"Unfortunately, a turnover in overtime was kind of the story of the game," said coach Dave Tippett of Zbynek Michalek’s neutral-zone miscue. "There’s lots of effort there. You can’t fault the guys there. But in tight hockey games, there’s little plays that really matter."
Here’s how it shakes out with three games remaining.
Dallas beat Nashville in a shootout Tuesday, so the Stars have a two-point lead over the Coyotes. If the Stars maintain or increase that margin in their next two games — at home against Columbus on Wednesday and at home against suddenly slumping St. Louis on Friday — they clinch the final wild card spot before they arrive in Phoenix for Sunday’s season finale.
Dallas wins all tiebreakers with Phoenix because they have an insurmountable lead in regulation/overtime wins (ROW), they have already won the season series and they own an insurmountable advantage in goal differential.
The Coyotes no longer control their own fate. They need Dallas to falter and, just as importantly, they need to actually win games because they have to make up ground.
"Managing the puck better, execution — we’re trying to do the right thing sometimes. We’re just not getting it done," Tippett said.
It may be too little, too late but Tippett didn’t close the door on the possibility that Mike Smith returns in goal Thursday in Nashville. If it happens, it might give the Coyotes an emotional lift in the next two games, but it would be unfair to pin Tuesday’s loss entirely on Thomas Greiss.
Three of the four goals he allowed were from point-blank range and the overtime winner off Ryan Johansen’s stick came on a partial breakaway when Johansen got behind Ekman-Larsson and Michalek and ripped a wrist shot over Greiss’ shoulder from just outside the hash mark. That’s prime scoring real estate.
"You seem to only remember when someone makes a mistake, but he made so many huge saves for us throughout that game," Doan said. "We just needed to make one more play."