This tweet sums up the importance of tonight's game for the Phoenix Coyotes quite nicely:
Last time the Coyotes won three straight games, you were still getting a sugar buzz off your Halloween candy. Beat the Caps on Sat a must— Jerry Brown (@FrozenRubber) March 7, 2014
If the Coyotes are going to make the playoffs, they need to string wins together. As Phoenix comes into Washington with a two-game winning streak, the chance to win three in a row cannot be passed up.
Matchup at a Glance
|Phoenix Coyotes||Washington Capitals|
|Points||69 (4th Pacific)||68 (5th Metropolitan)|
|Goals Per Game||2.71 (15th)||2.81 (T-10th)|
|Goals Against Per Game||2.81 (T-19th)||2.94 (24th)|
|Power Play Percentage||20.9% (5th)||23.0% (2nd)|
|Penalty Kill Percentage||79.5% (27th)||80.5% (23rd)|
So far, the Martin Erat era is going pretty well for the Coyotes. Although he did not record a point in his debut, several other facets of his game were on display, including a screen of the goaltender that allowed Radim Vrbata to open the scoring on Thursday. Simply put, both Vrbata and Erat are vital to the team's success this season, so if both get off to hot starts in March, the Coyotes will be sitting pretty on offense.
On defense, things have begun to improve. Phoenix only conceded two goals against the Montreal Canadiens, and one of those came on the trailing end of a lengthy 5-on-3. Part of the reason for the improved defensive numbers has been the steadily improving play of Mike Smith. The other reason is the defensive stability the Coyotes have finally found. With Zbynek Michalek, Derek Morris, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson all healthy at the same time, the blueline is slowly but surely regaining its signature form.
As important as this game is for the Desert Dogs, the Washington Capitals need it badly too. Currently three points back of the Detroit Red Wings for the final playoff spot in the East, Washington was very active at the deadline in an attempt to get better. Washington first acquired longtime Pacific Division Coyote foe Dustin Penner from the Anaheim Ducks. The Caps then jettisoned disgruntled flotsam Martin Erat to the Coyotes for Rostislav Klesla and Chris Brown. The Caps finally sent Klesla and Michal Neuvirth to Buffalo in exchange for Jaroslav Halak, a deliciously ironic move because, as this aritcle by Japer's Rink suggests, Halak is arguably the reason the Washington Capitals have never been able to regain their dominance from the 2009-10 campaign.
Washington's offense can be summed up in five words: Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. Ovi leads the NHL with a staggering 44 goals, and Backstrom is second on the team's point list with 12 goals and 50 assists. The next closest player on the team is center Marcus Johansson with 38 points. While stopping either of those two elite players is really an exercise in futility, there are a few ways to mitigate their potency.
Keys to the Game
- Avoid the Demon Period - In their games against Montreal and St. Louis, Phoenix had two excellent periods and one horrific one. Against the Habs, the Coyotes took four penalties and only one shot in the 2nd. While thankfully their offense in the first and third periods bailed them out, they can't rely on that against a team that knows how to punish their opponents on the power play.
- Manage the Depth Scoring - In many ways, Washington is comparable to the Anaheim Ducks of old; plenty of star power on the top lines, but not nearly enough depth in the bottom six. The Coyotes have plenty of speed in Lauri Korpikoski and Brandon McMillan that they can use to exploit those matchups.
- Capture Early Momentum - The Coyotes do not necessarily have to score first (though it helps). After Phoenix went up 1-0 against Montreal, they went on a two minute power play. While they didn't score, it gave the Coyotes' best players plenty of early ice time and put Montreal on their heels. Phoenix should try and do the same tonight.
Player to Watch
#63 / Center / Phoenix Coyotes
Feb 10, 1980
|2013 - Mike Ribeiro||14||29||43||-5||48|
Mike Ribeiro had arguably his best game as a Coyote on Thursday, with two gorgeous assists. Tonight will be his chance to show Washington what they are missing out on.
Projected Starting Goaltender
#41 / Goalie / Phoenix Coyotes
Mar 22, 1982
|2013 - Mike Smith||53||3077||22||18||10||139||2.71||1608||1445||.914||3|
With the exception of the disastrous third period against St. Louis, Mike Smith has allowed two goals or fewer in every single game he's played in since returning from the Olympics. He has solidified his position as Phoenix' number one netminder.
The Coyotes may still be without the services of Martin Hanzal (lower body), who missed the game against Montreal and is questionable for tonight. Defenseman David Schlemko (lower body) left the Habs game after stepping in front of a P.K. Subban slap shot. He is also listed as questionable for tonight, with Brandon Gormley getting a call-up.
Washington is littered with injuries ahead of tonight's game. Winger Aaron Volpatti (lower body) and defenseman Jack Hillen (fractured tibula) are both on injured reserve. Defenseman John Erskine (mystery injury) and centers Brooks Laich (groin) and Mikhail Grabovski (ankle) are listed as questionable. Defenseman Dmitry Orlov will return after a two game Shanaban for this hit.
Plenty of places to go to watch tonight's tilt if you are in the Valley. The game is on at 5 PM Arizona time on Fox Sports Arizona and 92.3 KTAR FM. If you don't want to spend the evening alone, the Coyotes are having a viewing part in the East Valley tonight at Nate's Third Base in Chandler. And of course, you can watch the game at Jobing.com Arena before taking part in CanadaFest.