Coyotes-Predators Preview

The Phoenix Coyotes eliminated the Nashville Predators on their

way to the Western Conference finals last season, but it’s starting

to look like merely qualifying for the postseason this spring might

be a stretch.

The Coyotes attempt to avoid their longest losing streak in 19

years Thursday night while the Predators look to continue damaging

Phoenix’s playoff chances by sweeping this four-game homestand.

The Coyotes (13-15-5) ousted the Predators (14-13-6) in five

games during the second round of the playoffs last year before

falling in the conference finals, but even having a chance to

return to the NHL’s postseason tournament is looking dicey. Phoenix

is tied with Edmonton for 12th in the West, five points back of San

Jose and St. Louis for the final two playoff positions.

The Coyotes’ chances have been hurt by an 0-5-2 skid during

which they’ve totaled eight goals. They haven’t endured a longer

slide since tying a franchise record with 10 straight losses as the

Winnipeg Jets from Feb. 6-25, 1994.

The latest defeat may have been the most difficult to take.

Phoenix rallied from two goals down to take a 3-2 lead Wednesday at

Minnesota, but gave up the tying goal with 54.3 seconds to go in

regulation before falling 4-3 in overtime.

“We battled back for a point, but the reality is in our

situation we need more than one point. … When you continue to

find ways to give points away it’s very frustrating,” coach Dave

Tippett said.

Things have been made more difficult with a head injury to

goaltender Mike Smith, one of the catalysts behind last year’s

playoff run. He was placed on injured reserve Tuesday, retroactive

to March 21, and there’s no timetable for his return.

That could mean a third consecutive start for Jason LaBarbera,

who is 0-4-1 with a 3.22 goals-against average in five starts this

season. He had 33 saves Wednesday.

“It’s about a big of a kick to the nuts as you’re going to get.

I felt like we were going to win that game,” LaBarbera said.

The veteran backup has won his last three visits to Nashville

behind a 1.67 GAA, but Chad Johnson might not be a bad option

should Tippett decide to give LaBarbera a rest. He’s made only two

starts this season, but stopped 21 shots in a 4-0 win over the

Coyotes on Jan. 28

Whichever goaltender gets the call will have to be sharp when

Martin Erat and Mike Fisher are on the ice. Erat, who leads the

Predators with 20 points, has a goal and six assists during

Nashville’s three straight home wins – including two assists in

Monday’s 3-2 victory over Edmonton.

It seems he may be in for another productive performance since

he has five assists over the past three regular-season home

meetings with Phoenix, including two in a 3-0 victory Feb. 14.

Fisher scored on one of those assists by Erat, and he has 14

points in 14 career regular-season matchups. He has five goals and

three assists during a seven-game point streak.

Fisher hasn’t put together a longer streak since a career-high

nine-game run from Dec. 23, 2007-Jan. 12, 2008, with Ottawa.

Including the final two meetings in Nashville during the playoff

series, Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne is 2-1-0 with a 0.34 GAA

in his last three home starts against Phoenix.