Following their historic February run, one which saw the Phoenix Coyotes go undefeated in regulation (11-0-1) while earning 23 of 24 points to surge to 3rd in the Western Conference, the local hockey team fell back to earth when the calendar turned. Unable to summon the comeback magic which aided them during the streak, the Desert Dogs fell behind early and dropped a 4-2 decision to the hungry Calgary Flames on Thursday night. Tonight, however, offers a chance to bounce back and secure their playoff position further as the woefully undermanned and overmatched Columbus Blue Jackets come to Jobing.com Arena.
The only NHL team yet to crack the 20-win or 50-point plateaus, the Blue Jackets cleaned house at the trading deadline, including their gift of center Antoine Vermette to Phoenix, and have simply struggled to compete on a nightly basis. Despite shutting out the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday, Columbus has lost 5 of its last 7 contests, and considering the recent run of top notch play shown by the 'Yotes this team should be easy pickings. With the Coyotes locked in a bitter battle with rivals San Jose and Dallas for the Pacific Division crown, taking the full 2 points tonight is a must. The game will be broadcast on Fox Sports Net at 6:00pm, and for any locals looking for a good time the team is running its popular "Buck Bash" promotion for tonight's tilt, so beers and dogs will only cost a dollar each. Find your Five for Winning, Players to Watch and Injury Updates after the jump...
1. Come Out Ready. Even after roaring back from a 3-0 1st period deficit against the Los Angeles Kings and a 2-0 hole against the Calgary Flames more than a week ago, Phoenix should not become reliant on this sleight of hand. Sure, those wins were as exciting as they come, but as the recent loss to Calgary showed, allowing the first few goals of any hockey game is usually a recipe for defeat. Tonight the team needs to reestablish a sense of focus and urgency by coming out of the gates strong and jumping on a depleted and downtrodden opponent.
2. Bring the Body Check. While the 'Yotes aren't known around the league as the most physical team, gritty players like Shane Doan, Raffi Torres and Taylor Pyatt can all make their presence felt with a well timed body check. In the loss to the Flames, however, Phoenix was nearly doubled up on the physicality meter, getting outhit by a margin of 38-23 and letting Calgary players dictate the action. While we aren't expecting the Wrestlemania-like game which took place against the Kings a week or so back, outhitting Columbus tonight would definitely bode well for the team's chances.
3. Keep Your Eyes on the Prize. While a ridiculous streak vaulted the 'Yotes from 12th to 3rd in the conference standings, their work is not nearly over yet. With 75 points, Phoenix is 2 points clear of both San Jose and the surging Dallas Stars in the fight to claim the franchise's first ever Pacific Division title. On the other hand, the Kings, Avalanche and Flames are all lurking 5 or 6 points back, and if the Coyotes slip up they could easily be on the outside looking in. The upcoming schedule is littered with showdown games against conference foes, so tonight's game against the last-place Blue Jackets is a prime opportunity to secure 2 valuable points.
4. Capitalize on the Power Play. I know, I know... the Coyotes' play on the man advantage has been dreadful this season, with their lowly 13.3% conversion rate ranking worst in the NHL. They did bang one home in the loss to the Flames though, and the Phoenix PP unit went 3/7 just two weeks ago to help defeat the Kings. Heading into the playoffs, it will be of paramount importance that the 'Yotes figure things out on the power play. Considering the Blue Jackets' penalty killing unit is also worst in the league, with only 76.0% of PP's getting snuffed out, something's gotta give and there is no time like tonight for Phoenix to get their act together.
5. Lock Nash Down. The management in Columbus sent a strong signal to their fanbase by retaining the services of superstar winger Rick Nash despite his public trade request. Players with the natural skill and pure scoring ability of Nash are few and far between in professional hockey, and Columbus was correct in determining that no offer would return equal value. As the Blue Jackets' lone offensive threat, keeping Nash off of the score sheet tonight would be a great way to keep Columbus quiet. The disgruntled team scoring leader has tallied two goals in his past three games, however, so this task will be easier said than done.
Key Players to Watch
|2011 - Antoine Vermette||64||8||19||27||-16||14||2||1||3||115|
After arriving from the hockey purgatory known as Columbus and joining the Coyotes during their best streak in recent memory, Antoine Vermette has shown flashes of his scoring ability but remains pointless with Phoenix. The newcomer has played well centering Shane Doan and Lauri Korpikoski, clanging a few glorious chances off the iron and getting robbed on a couple of others. Vermette could easily have a pair of goals and a pile of helpers at this point had the puck bounced another way, and I have a feeling competing against his old teammates will bring out his best. Here's hoping the Jobing.com Arena crowd greets Vermette's first goal in the desert with a round of howling tonight.
|2011 - Rick Nash||64||22||22||44||-24||32||5||1||1||243|
By far the most talented player on the Blue Jackets' roster, Rick Nash lobbied for a trade to a contender but was rebuffed by Columbus management. The only thing for the dangerous sniper to do for the rest of this season is score goals and hope a more attractive trade offer comes in the offseason. With a pair of goals in his last three games, Nash certainly hasn't let the trade speculation affect his play, so the Coyotes will need to be sharp if they hope to contain him.
Likely Starting Goalies
|2011 - Mike Smith||51||2982||29||15||112||2.25||1531||1419||.927||4|
Smitty has been the backbone of the team's recent run, winning 11 straight games at one point with a single game off for rest in the middle. He has proven himself to be a top-10 starting goalie and shown that GMDM's decision to let Ilya Bryzgalov go was a shrewd move.
|2011 - Steve Mason||35||1968||9||22||111||3.38||1003||892||.889||1|
Mason's overall stats aren't very impressive, but playing for a cellar dwelling club like Columbus hasn;t helped his cause. He did post a shutout over the Avalanche in his most recent appearance, however, so the Coyotes will need to bring pucks to the net and pepper Mason, forcing him to revert to the subpar play that has defined his year.
Phoenix Coyotes Injuries
Columbus Blue Jackets Injuries
For the enemy's perspective on tonight's game, head over to The Cannon for a Columbus fan's point of view.