Pacific: Coyotes need strong finish to secure playoff berth

By Andrew Knoll

Photo: Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan returns to the lineup on Thursday following a three-game suspension with his team struggling to maintain a playoff spot (courtesy of

Bob Frid/Icon SMI)

For the Phoenix Coyotes, rest or rust could mean boom or bust down the stretch this season.

Their three-day break will conclude tomorrow and, at the end of the day, Los Angeles, San Jose and Dallas will all have seen their two games in hand against Phoenix evaporate.

"First of all, it’s a challenge because they’re good teams, but we have to challenge ourselves," head coach Dave Tippett told the Arizona Republic. "We think we’re a good team also.”

While those clubs will have a chance to gain ground along with the extra-divisional foes Calgary and Colorado, the Coyotes could also use the down time to heal. Leading goal-scorer Radim Vrbata leads a pack of ailing Coyotes and could return to action Thursday.

"Well, if you look at where we are in the schedule with people missing, these are much-needed days off for us," Tippett told the Republic. "I don’t think people realize how hard of a turnaround it is to play games in 24 hours and travel at the intensity that we’re trying to play with right now."

The Coyotes will also get a boost in the form of their captain Shane Doan’s return from a three-game suspension. His elbow to Dallas Stars forward Jamie Benn converted him into a spectator last week.

"Obviously you never want to be in the position I’m in right now with eight games
 to go and miss those three," Doan told reporters Monday. "But it is what it is. It’s over. Now I have to get ready to go."

With six teams vying for three playoff spots and just three points separating the No. 3 seed from the No. 11 seed, the Coyotes cannot watch the scoreboard and hope. They must seize control of their own opportunities if they want to extend their streak of playoff berths to three.

"We probably have to win most of the rest of the games here to get in," winger Lauri Korpikoski told the Republic. "That’s kind of the fact, and hopefully we’ll get Doaner back for sure and hopefully get some more guys back and be healthy going into the last five games."

In the absence of Doan, Vrbata and other regulars, the Coyotes have continued to struggle to find secondary scoring. In their last game, they were blanked 4-0 by the St. Louis Blues Sunday.

"It’s frustrating when guys like myself do get chances and aren’t able to play well,” backup goalie Jason LaBarbera told reporters after his 4-0 loss. “It’s not easy when you have your top guys out, the guys you rely on, but there are no excuses. Everyone has to pitch in and step up."

Phoenix has continued to get remarkably consistent play from Ray Whitney, who leads the club in scoring. He had his most recent seven-game point streak snapped Sunday against the Blues.

Raffi Torres has also given the Coyotes a bit of a boost, scoring six of his 15 goals this season in the month of March.

Perhaps the most expansive and expanded contribution has come from Oliver Ekman-Larsson. In his first full season, Ekman-Larsson’s ice time has risen over the course of the year and he has produced a career-high seven points thus far in March.

He’s a 20-year-old kid who’s playing enormous minutes and playing against the other team’s top players every shift," Tippett said in Dallas. "He’s turning into a phenomenal young player."

Whether they get contributions from their seasoned vets and leadership core or their young players, the Coyotes will need a strong push in their last five games to make the playoffs and possibly win the Pacific Division.

"There’s no room for error now," Korpikoski
 told reporters after Sunday’s loss. "There’s five games left in the season. It’s not like we can have a so-so week and be better the next week. There might not be a next week."