December in the desert has been defined by the Phoenix Coyotes' plummet from this season's peak, as the team has lost 9 of its 14 games this month and slipped into the Western Conference's non-playoff valley. So tonight's game against the Colorado Avalanche, played amidst the towering peaks and verdant valleys of the Rockies, provides the perfect setting for two teams looking to climb their way back into the top eight. An injury-riddled Phoenix squad will be hungry after posting a gritty, 2-1 overtime loss against the defending champion Boston Bruins last night.
Standing in their way is an Avalanche team hoping to continue their home cooking, after Colorado's recent 8-game winning streak at Pepsi Center came to an end. The Avalanche have won 5 of their last 6 contests overall, dispatching a few of the NHL's top teams in the process, and have been mirror opposites of the Coyotes this month with 8 wins in 13 games. Tonight's puck drop is at 7:00pm local time and the game will be broadcast on Fox Sports Net Arizona. Five for Winning and Players to Watch coming up after the jump...The LaBarbera Shop: Backup goaltender Jason LaBarbera has been thrust into the starting role after Mike Smith was placed on injured reserve. While LaBarbera has been competent in his role as a spot starter, manning the net during back-to-backs when Smith needed a spell, his ability to perform consistently as an everyday netminder has yet to be seen. Since the injury to Smith, 'Barbs has posted a 1-2-1 record while allowing 3 or more goals in his first 3 starts. For an offensively challenged hockey club like the Coyotes, a 3.00+ GAA will simply not cut it and LaBarbera must work hard to turn in Smith-like, 30+ save performances to give his team a chance to win. If the backup turned starter can replicate his game from last night, when he turned away 27 of 29 Bruin shots, Phoenix has a great chance to emerge with the defensive-minded victory that has become their trademark.
A Sight for Sore Eyes: Of all the teams the Coyotes would prefer to face when desperately needing a win, the Avalanche would likely top the list. For whatever reason, Phoenix has fared incredibly well against Colorado and has earned 11 of the possible 12 points up for grabs in the last 6 meetings. The dominance continued earlier this season when the Coyotes drubbed the Avalanche by a 4-1 margin in early November. At a time when the team is reeling, with injuries to key players adding to the insult of mounting losses, the Coyotes should relish this opportunity to play against a team which seems snakebitten. An early goal and a few timely hits will likely be enough to drain the Avs' spirit, especially if they expect to jump on a downtrodden Phoenix team playing its second game in consecutive nights.
Back-to Back Bounce Back: After a grueling effort last night against the defending champion Bruins, head coach Dave Tippett's team will have to dig deep to find the energy they'll need to play at elevation. The good news is that Phoenix has been extremely resilient this year, going 4-1-0 in the second game of back-to-back series. They will need to harness this ability to shrug off fatigue tonight against the Avalanche, who have had a full night to rest in preparation.
Road Warriors: With a middling 7-8-3 record on home ice at Jobing.com Arena, the Coyotes would appear to be a lackluster team in the 2011-12 campaign. Away from Glendale, however, the Desert Dogs are 11-7-1 and this ability to excel in hostile conditions has been key to the Coyotes continued success the last few seasons. Under the Tippett regime, the Coyotes have posted road records of 22-13-6 (2009-10) and 21-15-5 (2010-11) and the trend has continued this season. For a team that seems to thrive in the face of adversity, hitting the road for a game they badly need 2 points from seems only fitting.
Clamp Down on the Kill: For the Avalanche, home ice seems to freeze up their power play unit, and their NHL-leading 27.8 percent conversion rate on the road dips to just 13.2 percent at Pepsi Center. Phoenix has seen its torrid penalty kill pace regress just a bit, but at 83.3 percent the unit is still 12th-best in the league. In order to give LaBarbera a much needed boost of confidence, a few strong penalty kills could swing the momentum of this game in the Coyotes' favor.
Players to Watch: Coyotes leading scorer Radim Vrbata, who began his career in Colorado, loves to play against Avalanche goaltending and has notched 4 goals in his last 3 games against his old team. Colorado's own leading scorer, Ryan O'Reilly has 26 points this year and has scored 2 goals in the last 3 games. The 20-year old is also the younger brother of Coyotes centerman Cal O'Reilly, and Ryan should be in the mood for a little sibling rivalry in what will be the pair's second game against one another.
Key Injuries: For Phoenix, goalie Mike Smith, defensemen Adrian Aucoin and forwards Martin Hanzal and Boyd Gordon are all sitting. Colorado's David Jones, Peter Mueller, Mark Olver and Ryan Wilson will all be out of the lineup.