Coyotes have new lease on life with four games to play
GLENDALE, Ariz. — The weekend placed the Coyotes in a pair of unfamiliar situations. First, they had a chance to rest, regroup and actually practice during a rare three-day break in their late-season grind. On the flip side, they had to watch helplessly as the Stars made up their two games in hand, not knowing whether they’d still be in realistic striking distance of the Western Conference’s final playoff spot when Dallas concluded a two-game trip through Florida.
"Having a couple days off is nice, but sitting and watching and not being able to control anything in your own outcome is pretty tough," defenseman and alternate captain Keith Yandle admitted Sunday.
Not to worry. After beating the Lightning on Saturday, the Stars gave the Coyotes the split they were hoping for — the unconventional way — when they blew a 2-0 lead and lost to the lowly Panthers 3-2 in regulation on Sunday.
That result left the teams even in games played and with Dallas leading Phoenix by one point for the final postseason berth with four games remaining — including a very large one looming when the Stars come to Jobing.com Arena on April 13 for both teams’ season finales.
If the point spread remains as it is coming into that final game, the Coyotes would earn a playoff spot with a regulation win over the Stars. If the teams are tied or Phoenix leads by a point, any kind of win would do the trick. If Dallas leads by two points entering that game, the Coyotes would be eliminated since the Stars own the first three tiebreakers (total regulation/overtime wins, head-to-head points and goal differential).
"You certainly know what’s going on, but ultimately, it’s about taking care of ourselves first," said coach Dave Tippett, who welcomed an opportunity to practice on Sunday and again Monday when the team arrived in Columbus. "We had a good tempo. Had to get out there and just get making some plays and get some flow back in our game. The game the other night looked really choppy.
"There’s always different ways you can (work on) details. When you don’t have time to practice, there’s a lot of video that goes into it. (But when) guys get on the ice and just go through it, it’s helpful all the time. It just brings an extra onus back on what you’re doing."
Tippett hopes that will make a difference Tuesday against an equally desperate team trying to hold onto the eighth seed or climb higher in the Eastern Conference.
Columbus plays its final three games on the road, including the make-up game against Dallas that was postponed March 10 after Stars forward Rich Peverley collapsed on the bench. In light of that closing stretch, the Jackets are placing a premium on this last home game.
"It’s a big week," right wing Jared Boll told the Columbus Dispatch. "We’ll be ready to go."
Nobody inside the locker room is questioning the Coyotes’ effort and preparedness either, but it’s clear they need to get more production from top forwards Mike Ribeiro, Martin Hanzal, Radim Vrbata, Shane Doan, Antoine Vermette and Martin Erat. Following Friday’s loss to the Oilers, Tippett extended that call to arms to his top-nine forwards.
The Coyotes have scored a total of four goals in this four-game losing streak.
"If it’s a tic-tac-toe play, great. If it’s a shot from the point that gets deflected five times, that’s great, too," Vrbata said. "Whatever it takes right now."
It’s not ideal that the Coyotes have to make their third trip back east in the final five weeks of the season, but following an 0-2-2 week, Phoenix feels fortunate still to be talking about the postseason.
"Obviously it’s tough at the end of the year, but if you win those games, it’s not a big deal," Yandle said. "If you lose it, you sometimes maybe use that as an excuse, but for us, we’ve just got to play it like our lives depend on it, because they do."
Goalie Mike Smith (right knee) traveled with the team and went through his first full practice on Monday in Columbus. He is still listed as day-to-day.
"It’s his call," Tippett said. "When he feels like he’s capable to play then that’s when he’ll play."
Forward Jeff Halpern tweaked a muscle in Sunday’s practice, but he returned Monday and Tippett said he is good to go. Defenseman David Schlemko (foot) is doing on-ice work, but he’s coming along slowly and is unlikely to play on this trip.
The Coyotes signed defenseman Justin Hache of the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles (QMJHL) to a three-year entry-level contract Monday. Hache was originally drafted by the Coyotes in the seventh round (208th overall) of the 2012 Entry Draft.
The 6-foot-2, 202-pounder had five goals and 46 points with 53 penalty minutes in 57 games with Cape Breton this season. He ranked second on the team in assists and scoring by defensemen.