The Phoenix Coyotes currently sit in 11th place, and after a frustrating loss to the Minnesota Wild 4-3 on Thursday night, they need an opportunity to make a big move up the conference standings. Fate has given them that chance against the Pacific Division leading Anaheim Ducks in not one, not two, but three consecutive games.
Were it not for the unreal season the Chicago Blackhawks are having right now, Anaheim's success would probably be the biggest story in the NHL. Under Bruce Boudreau, the Ducks have been clicking offensively with the always dangerous mix of Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan, and Teemu Selanne. Also buoying the Ducks' season has been the stellar play of rookie netminder Viktor Fasth, who up until last week looked unbeatable. While the rivalry between the Ducks and the Coyotes has laid somewhat dormant over the past few years, as one of the two teams has typically found itself long out of playoff contention. This time around, both teams have a whole lot to play for.
Last season, Boudreau's arrival was a big boon for Anaheim in their matchups against Phoenix. The Ducks won 3 of the 4 games they played against the Coyotes under Boudreau, with the lone loss being down the stretch after the Ducks had already been eliminated from postseason contention and the Coyotes were fighting for their playoff lives.
I'm not usually prone to hyperbole, but these three games could be the tipping point of the Coyotes' season. They have been largely unable to find consistency this year, they are languishing near the bottom of the playoff picture, and the teams around them are all stringing together points. The Coyotes need to make a statement, and this series could provide a golden opportunity to do just that.
Five (Plus One) For Winning
1. Top 6 Production. With the exception of Mikkel Boedker, the Coyotes haven't gotten much out of their best forwards. Obviously having Radim Vrbata and Martin Hanzal injured hurts, but players like Antoine Vermette, Shane Doan, Lauri Korpikoski, and Steve Sullivan have all been around long enough to figure it out. The Coyotes need them to start putting the puck in the net.
2. Play With the Lead. With the way Fasth has been playing, the Coyotes do not want to give him a cushion. If they can find a way to score first, their record suggests they will have a much easier time winning.
3. Slow it Down. If these games turn into track meets, the Coyotes will be in serious trouble. They're much better when they clog the neutral zone and set up their forecheck. The Ducks have quite a few dynamic offensive players. The less space they have, the better.
4. Adjust. One of Dave Tippett's best attributes as a head coach is his ability to make changes mid-game to suit the way his team is playing. The Coyotes and Ducks are going to get very familiar with each other over the next week. The coach who can keep his opponent guessing the longest is going to have the more successful team.
5. Special Teams. These two teams are a tale of opposites. Anaheim has the best power play in the NHL, but the 3rd worst penalty kill. Meanwhile, Phoenix has a Top 10 PK unit but a struggling power play group. A good showing from the penalty kill units plus a power play goal here and there could make the difference between picking up 6 points or zero.
6. Swing the Standings. This series has the potential to be a 12 point swing. No other team in the NHL will have a chance against the leader of their division like the one the Coyotes have. If they can't take the majority of these points, the hill they have to climb will turn into a mountain. But if they can win and win in regulation, the Coyotes will give themselves a tremendous statistical and mental boost.
Players to Watch
Since these two teams are going to play three games against each other, it's only fair we feature three players per side.
The fact that Selanne is playing is impressive. The fact that he continues to produce as much as he does is simply remarkable. The game is going to miss him dearly when he finally does decide to hang up the skates.
The captain for theDucks has been a perennial thorn in the side of the Desert Dogs. He leads his team in points this year with 21 (6G, 15A), so there's no reason to expect him to be any different this time around.
You'd be forgiven if you had a hard time naming anybody on Anaheim's blueline, but they've been extremely good. Francois Beauchemin has 13 points (2G, 11A) and is a staggering +13. The defense has not been a liability for the Ducks at all.
Although he scored a late goal against the Minnesota Wild Thursday night to get the Coyotes within one, the captain has been one of many forwards to underperform this season. That doesn't seem to be an issue for him against Anaheim, so maybe this three game stretch will be the perfect way for Doaner to get going on offense.
With the injuries to Hanzal and Vrbata, Boedker has quietly assumed the Coyotes' scoring lead. He has been hands-down the most consistent Top 6 forward this season. Phoenix would like for him to go on a tear against the Division leaders.
We haven't mentioned Keith Yandle a whole lot recently. That's good since it means he's not committing as many bad turnovers as before, but it's also bad since it means he's not providing a huge spark on offense. The Coyotes will need big games from him and the rest of the defensive corps to help the struggling offense out.
Projected Starting Goaltenders
Fasth has lost one game this year and has a GAA below two. If he wasn't over the eligibility age, he'd probably be running away with the Calder Trophy right now. There's no reason to believe he won't start all three games in this series.
Although he hasn't gotten a whole lot of help in front of him, Mike Smith has not been stealing games like he did last season. It's very likely that he will play all three games as well, and the Coyotes would love for him to put up a shutout or two.
The Anaheim Ducks are skating with a completely healthy roster as of right now.
The same cannot be said of the Coyotes. Martin Hanzal and Radim Vrbata remain out, and could very well be out for the entire series. David Schlemko is getting closer to practicing with full-contact, but it will still probably be a couple of weeks before he sees playing time.
Game 1 of this series will be tonight at Jobing.com Arena at 6PM. Game 2 will be Monday night at home but at 7PM. The final game between these two will be in Anaheim on Wednesday night at 8PM. The first two games will be televised on FSAZ, and the 3rd game will be shown on FSAZ+, with all three games on the radio at XTRA 910 AM.