Coyotes have chance to make move in standings
NEWARK, N.J. — When the Coyotes boarded their charter flight home from Newark late Thursday night, there was clear cause for celebration and satisfaction. The team had earned five of a possible six points on a three-game road trip — under difficult circumstances.
Despite the absence of injured goalie Mike Smith and the continued benching of center Mike Ribeiro and defenseman Derek Morris, the Coyotes eat the Devils 3-2 in a shootout at the Prudential Center behind another big goal from Mikkel Boedker and 26 saves from backup Thomas Greiss.
While the flight crew made final preparations for takeoff, the owners, assistant coaches, media, team staff and players chatted loudly in the aisles. Captain Shane Doan kept with tradition by supplying the postgame pizzas, and Ribeiro cranked Vanilla Ice’s, "Ice Ice Baby," leading Coyotes radio play-by-play man Bob Heethuis to joke that he was singing, "Greiss, Greiss, baby."
Amid the chaos, coach Dave Tippett sat quietly in his seat, staring straight ahead. It was as if he had already moved on from the big win in New Jersey to focus on the road ahead. Following a day of rest, that is exactly what the Coyotes will do.
"We’ve got to keep playing well," Tippett said. "We’re getting down to the nitty-gritty here. Teams in the standings that are right there with you — those become huge games."
Tippett was talking specifically about Saturday’s game at Jobing.com Arena against the rapidly sinking Wild. Red hot before the trade deadline at 14-2-2, the Wild have dropped nine of their last 12 games (3-5-4) to put seventh place in the Western Conference back in play for the Coyotes.
Entering Saturday’s game, Minnesota leads Phoenix by one point, with the teams both having played 74 games.
A number of issues have plagued the Wild, as the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Mike Russo noted. Goaltenders Darcy Kuemper and Ilya Bryzgalov have allowed three goals or more in nine of the last 12 games and 13 goals in the last three games (on just 58 shots).
The power play is operating at 14.6 percent efficiency over this 12-game stretch, and the penalty kill (64.6 percent) has been awful in that same stretch, allowing 11 goals on 31 chances.
As Russo noted, forward Dany Heatley is a minus-7 in his last five games and a team-worst minus-18 for the season. He has just four shots in the past 11 games and hasn’t scored since Feb. 27, leading for calls to bench him, just as Tippett did with ineffective veterans Ribeiro and Morris.
The Coyotes believe jumping into seventh place is better than holding onto eighth, but it has little to do with advantageous first-round matchups, as those haven’t even been determined.
"I don’t care so much about climbing," Doan said. "We’ve got to just be playing well at the end of the season. We’re starting to find our stride and hopefully find our consistency."
Tippett won’t divulge any lineup changes before the team skates on Saturday morning, so it’s unclear whether Ribeiro and Morris will continue to sit. He did acknowledge that both will play again at some point this season, but he wouldn’t speculate on the circumstances of their return.
"There’s a lot of different ways," he said. "We can just insert them, or there might be some injuries — at some point they’re going to play again. We rely on everybody. It’s just a matter of when they get back in."
One thing is clear: Both will have to buy into and execute the style the Coyotes played these past two games in road wins in Pittsburgh and New Jersey. That is this franchise’s well-worn formula for success.
"We know it’s going to be a battle the last (eight) games, but this is fun, this is why you play," Doan said. "You wish you were in a better position where maybe you could cruise in, but we’re not. We’re in the position we’re in, and we’re going to find ways to win."