(Eds: Updates with more details and quotes. With AP Photos.)By JOHN MARSHALLAP Sports Writer
The Phoenix Coyotes earned four of a possible six points in three road games last week, which, in any other circumstance, would be considered a solid road trip.
At this point of this truncated season, stretches like that aren’t going to be good enough for the inconsistent Coyotes.
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With 13 games left and five teams between them and the Western Conference’s final playoff spot, the time to win is now or the Coyotes’ string of playoff appearances will end at three seasons.
”Now you’re at the point you have to get points to keep yourself in the race; there’s nothing in the middle here,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said Monday after practice at Jobing.com Arena. ”It’s one way or the other and you have to play well to win.”
The Coyotes went into last week’s three-game road swing calling it a crucial stretch in the season.
They didn’t get much clarity one way or another in the standings after blowing out Nashville and letting leads – and precious points – slip away in games against Minnesota and San Jose, so the crucial stretch starts … now.
Beginning with the rival Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday night, Phoenix plays three home games this week before playing seven of its final 10 on the road. Sitting 13th in the Western Conference standings, the Coyotes need to win games and get the two points instead of eking out a point or getting nothing, particularly at home.
”I think everybody in the league is viewing the home games as ultra-important,” Tippett said. ”Every game is so competitive it’s like a playoff series, you want to hold home ice. That’s the mindset of the games at home.”
The Coyotes had a chance to make up ground last week, only to tread water by blowing late leads.
In its opening game of the trip, Phoenix seemed to be firmly in control against Minnesota, only to give up a goal with 54 seconds left and another in overtime to lose 4-3.
The Coyotes took out their frustrations on the Predators, whom they beat in last year’s playoffs, by scoring six goals in the first period of a 7-4 win. A high-scoring game like that is an anomaly, though, and the Coyotes followed it by losing in a shootout to San Jose after blowing a 2-1 lead Saturday night.
Phoenix has lost eight of nine heading into the game against the defending Stanley Cup champion Kings.
”We’ve found ways to give points away that are big and put us in this position,” Coyotes captain Shane Doan said. ”Love to be four or five more points (ahead) and be little more comfortable, but we don’t have that and have to find a way to get going.”
The good news for the Coyotes is despite the number of teams in front of them in the West, they’re not that far behind in points.
Entering Monday’s games, Phoenix had 34 points, just three behind Columbus, the eighth-place team in the Western Conference. St. Louis is ninth with 36 points, while Dallas, Edmonton and Nashville are tied at 35. And since the lockout-shortened schedule includes only teams within the conference, the opportunity to make up ground is there.
”The good part is if you can beat those teams with two-point game, they’re not getting anywhere,” Coyotes forward Radim Vrbata said. ”We need to just put some games together where we get two points.”
The Coyotes have been in this position before – just last year.
Coming off a losing stretch that dropped them to the edge of the playoff picture, the Coyotes reeled off nine wins and earned a point in three others in their final 15 games to win the Pacific Division, their first NHL division title. Phoenix went on to win its first two playoff series – over Nashville and Chicago – to reach the Western Conference finals for the first time.
The Pacific Division is pretty much out of reach – Anaheim leads with 51 points – but a big run could get Phoenix into the playoffs for a fourth straight season while playing without an owner.
”We know that it’s a battle right to the end and we’ve got to find ways to win games,” Doan said. ”We’ve done it in the past where we’ve gone on runs as a group and hopefully we can do it again. We have to – we’ve put ourselves in this position. When you look through the lineup, you know that guys can do it and there’s more to give. You’ve got to find ways to generate more offense and go on a streak.”
That streak needs to start now or it could be too late.