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The Five For Howling Roundtable: The Fight For The Playoffs

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Greetings Phoenix Coyotes fans. We hoped you enjoyed the All-Star break. The NHL regular season resumes tonight with a slate of 13 games including the Coyotes in action at home against the Ducks. This week, with the season more than half over, we take a look at the Coyotes playoff chances, who/what might help them get to the postseason, the latest ownership news, as well as the chances our special guest's hometown team wins the West this year.

The aforementioned special guest for this edition is Craig Morgan from Fox Sports Arizona. If you've lived in the Valley for awhile you've likely seen Craig's name on a byline or two. In addition to his work covering the for Fox Sports Arizona, he also writes for CBS Sports and has a column featured in Arizona Republic entitled Daddy's Home. You can also follow him on Twitter.

With only 32 games left in the season, what place do you see the Coyotes winding up in at the end of the season?

Craig: Eighth. The Central Division is on an historic pace to become the first division with four, 100-plus point teams. Vancouver and San Jose are elite clubs and Los Angeles finally appears to be playing up to its talent level. Unless L.A. slips again, five teams (six if Anaheim continues its torrid streak) will battle for the Western Conference's final playoff spot. I like the Coyotes' schedule down the stretch, I like their goaltending and I like their coaching staff in a tight playoff race. What I don't like is another, first-round matchup with Detroit, which I think will win the West. The Red Wings have lots of cap flexibility and can add up to three major pieces at the Feb. 27 trade deadline. That doesn't sit well with a Blackhawks fan.

Jordan: As the standings currently stand, according to one of my favorite sites starting this time of year, the Coyotes have a 30.8% chance of making the playoffs. Given that type of percentage, it is likely the Coyotes will finish in the 10-12 range. I think injuries and flat out bad luck have cost the Coyotes some points and that they could still make a push to get up into the 8th position or better. It looks like 43 points in the final 32 games (11 games over .500 down the stretch) should get them into the postseason for sure. I'll be happy to see them accomplish that.

The Dude: I see them finishing 7th or 8th in the conference. They are definitely going to need to win games but I can definitely see them getting enough points to get into the playoffs.

Carl: I think they finish somewhere between eighth and eleventh spots which is in line with my expectations when the season begun.

What things could increase the Coyotes chances of making the playoffs? What things could decrease their chances?

Craig: To improve their playoff prospects, it would be easy to point to the power play but I don't think it will improve markedly without some trade deadline moves. The Coyotes simply don't have the personnel, even if Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson can give them more from the point.

I think the greater keys are improved performance on home ice and improved play in one-goal games. Phoenix is 10-9-4 at Arena. Last season, the Coyotes were 10-9-5 at the break then went 11-4-2 in their last 17 games at home. A similar performance should spell playoffs.

The same goes for one-goal games. They had lost 10 straight before beating Ottawa before the break and they're 8-17 in one-goal games this season, Last season, they were 16-16 in one-goal games, but started 9-14 before a 7-2 stretch run.

As for what might hurt their chances, it's pretty clear that injuries to key players such as forwards Shane Doan, Radim Vrbata, Ray Whitney or goalie Mike Smith would be killers. But look how much the loss of Boyd Gordon hurt, too. There are certain roles the Coyotes simply can't replicate with other personnel. God forbid they should lose scoring or center depth from a lineup that lacks both to begin with.

Jordan: Any more significant injuries to the guys up the middle - Daymond Langkow, Martin Hanzal and Boyd Gordon - is going to seriously decrease the chances of making the playoffs (more than a game missed is how I am defining this). Helping them along the way are an increasingly manageable schedule and lots and lots of home games. Now the Coyotes haven't been lighting up the Arena ice so far this year, but if they can put together some solid numbers, they should be fine. Taking 10 points on the six games coming out of the break will take them a long way towards success, in my opinion.

The Dude: The Ducks have been doing better which could increase the Yotes chancing of getting into the playoff, since they are going to taking points away from other teams in the conference. I think the schedule
is going to increase their chances, it was a really tough schedule with traveling but it is definitely going to be calmer from now on and there is going to be more games played at home. Players gettingbetter is definitely going to increase the chances. I don't remember the last time they played without a person having to sit out because
of an injury and for a team that relies on everyone to win they haven't had everyone for a while. Of course David Schlemko is going to be out for the rest of the season so that may decrease their chances a little. I think that power play could decrease their chances. They need to get it better and, if they don't, it may cost them games which will make it harder to make the playoffs.

Carl: The biggest determinant will likely be health. Both of the Coyotes roster and the rosters of the teams they are fighting for a playoff birth. If the Yotes can stay healthy, especially at key positions, they have a decent shot at making the postseason again. If not, they will likely have being teeing up golf balls instead of one timers come mid-April.

The other determinants are likely to be secondary scoring and the power play. The Desert Dogs need other lines besides the Whitney-Vrbata line to start scoring. I think the most likely candidates to help out are Shane Doan, Gilbert Brule, and Raffi Torres. Doan always plays better late in the season. Brule in his brief time in a Phoenix uniform has already shown flashes of why he is a former first rounder. Finally, Torres has always had more skill than he's given credit for.

As for the power play, it needs to, at the very least, go from being atrocious to below-average. Their power play is second to last in the league (12.8%). Only Montreal's is statistically worse. However, the worse news is the Coyotes home power play (11.1%) is the worst is the league and they have more home than road games down the stretch.

Is there a player or two who hasn't made a huge impact so far this season that you could see playing extremely well down the stretch?

Craig: Tippett made it clear there are plenty of players who need to produce more, but tops among those is defenseman Keith Yandle, who made the All-Star game despite a average first half (29 points) that was also marked by defensive lapses. Yandle really needs to step up his game, both on the power play and at even strength.

The Coyotes could also use better production from center Martin Hanzal, who is mature enough to take that next step, and wing Raffi Torres, from whom more was expected when the Coyotes signed him this offseason. I don't know how much backup goalie Jason LaBarbera will play over the final 32 games, but he has to give the team better efforts when he does or he could be replaced next season.

Jordan: Taylor Pyatt is the guy that I've been waiting to turn things on for seemingly all season. If Pyatt can become a somewhat regular contributor it will help the Coyotes in their neverending quest to find goals. Gilbert Brule has impressed in his limited time with the team and I think he could also help solidify the secondary scoring down the stretch.

The Dude: Derek Morris has been playing better and I can see him continuing to get better and playing well in the last few games. I would really like to see Jason LaBarbera be really good in his remaining starts because we are going to need him to be in order to win those games.

Carl: The list is rather long which maybe is a good thing. It means there is plenty of room for improvement. The pairing of Yandle-and Morris tops my list Morris showed signs before the break of finally playing better after a season and a half of poor play. Yandle's offensive game appears to be heating up, but his defensive play has regressed so far this season. Mikkel Boedker needs to play better in the offensive zone against teams not named the Avalanche. The Yotes play 32 games over the next 67 days. This means backup goaltender Jason Labarbera will likely be called upon to start in more than a handful of games. As others have already mentioned, his play needs to be better. His save percentage was .888 over his last five starts won't cut it.

Does the league's acknowledgement that there is a third party involved in negotiations to buy the Coyotes make you more optimistic about the club staying in the Valley?

Craig: Not really. Nobody with thorough knowledge of the sale has ever said definitively that there are only two interested groups. The Jamison and Reinsdorf groups were just the two everyone was aware of. How serious is that third party's interest? That's another question.
I think this was Bettman's way of responding to Glendale Mayor Elaine Scruggs' tirade against the NHL for dragging its feet on the sale. This was a carrot to hold off the starving masses for another couple months.

Bettman was also surprisingly patronizing when he said: "The Mayor's not really well informed," but we won't get into that two-way street of incivility. We've already had enough of that between our Governor and our President.

Despite Bettman's insistence at his All-Star Game press conference that the price isn't holding up the sale of the team, I have serious doubts. First off, he may be playing the semantics game since there are other ways of arriving at that $170 million sale price besides having money come directly from the buyer (we learned that in the Matthew Hulsizer fiasco). I just don't know if the NHL will ever be able to solidify the alternate means of funding. If not, will they be willing to lower the price of the team to get the deal done and keep the team in a major media market? From a financial standpoint, that still makes the most sense for a league that can still reap lucrative expansion fees from two Canadian markets that still want NHL hockey.

Jordan: I've mostly tuned it all out at this point. Until someone is putting ink to the page signing an agreement and taking on the reigns, I'm not going to get optimistic or pessimistic about the future and just focus on the game at hand.

The Dude: I am cautiously optimistic about it. It is good to see a third option, but until they sign the paperwork it doesn't mean much. I'm not sure what to make of the fact that they haven't released who the group is,
if they came out publicly and gave their name I may think they are more serious, but we have two groups now who publicly expressed interest and neither have bought the team let so I'm not sure. I doubt that a group what start expressing interest this late in the game if they didn't have a legitimate interest, it seems like it would be a massive waste of time and money for them. They also are going into the decision with the knowledge about whats going on with the Goldwater Institute so that means they are willing to deal with any of those problems.

Carl: I continue to take the same approach is taking. I can't control the situation, so no use worrying about it.

With the addition of veteran center Brendan Morrison, what are the chances the Chicago Blackhawks win the Western Conference?

Craig: Not good without more trade deadline moves. I like Morrison, even at age 36, if his knees hold up. He can help solidify their lines and when they get Patrick Sharp and Jonathan Toews back in the lineup, clearly the Hawks won't be hurting for offense.

But it is defense that has killed this team all season, and it is defense where I think GM Stan Bowman will make his biggest play at the trade deadline. The Hawks' blue line is not physical and the Blackhawks lost some of their forward muscle after the Cup run when Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien and Ben Eager left. Chicago simply doesn't play well when the action stays in its own end for extended periods. They don't move players out from the front of the net and they don't win battles in the corners.

Jordan: I'd be more concerned with making sure Jonathan Toews is healthy than anything Morrison is going to provide. Regardless, if something dramatic doesn't happen to the Red Wings, I think it may all be for naught - as much as it pains me to say that.

The Dude: I thought that the Blackhawks would be able to make a good run to win the Western Conference before they signed Morrison, and signing him probably isn't going to hurt their chances. I haven't really got a chance to watch Morrison play this season so I don't have any specifics about what he would bring to the season but like I said I doubt he would hurt them.

Carl: Getting Morrison certainly doesn't hurt their chances, but it doesn't exactly solve their biggest problem either. Like the San Jose Sharks, the Hawks Achilles heel has been their penalty kill. If Bowman trades for a blueliner or two who can help their back end on the PK and at even strength and they have a shot.