GLENDALE, Ariz. - The Phoenix Coyotes are right in the thick of the NHL's wild, wild West -- where the standings don't change by the day, they flip-flop minute-to-minute.
The Coyotes began Thursday on the outside looking in at a playoff spot. But after red-hot Raffi Torres notched a goal and an assist and goalie Mike Smith celebrated his 30th birthday by making 39 saves, the Coyotes had jumped from ninth to third with a 3-2 win over the Colorado Avalanche.
Phoenix's stay in that perch lasted about 20 minutes. By the time they had finished with their postgame interviews, Los Angeles had beaten St. Louis 1-0 in a shootout and taken over the Pacific Division lead. The Coyotes had dropped back to seventh in a race where six teams separated by three points are fighting for three postseason chairs before the music stops on April 7.
"It's a roller coaster. You watch the standings before you go to bed and you get up and look at them again in the morning,' Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said. "That's where we are right now. Seven games left and it's going to be a dogfight right to the end. It's fun."
Again, that's in the eye of the beholder. Colorado dropped from seventh to ninth on Thursday after losing in regulation for just the fourth time in its last 15 games. But tomorrow is another day.
"At this point in the season you can't dwell on a loss. There is just too much at stake with the next game, Avs coach Joe Sacco said.
"Every game we play is a must-win game now," said forward Ryan O'Reilly, who started Colorado's comeback bid with a goal early in the third period.
Daymond Langkow and Kyle Chipchura also scored for the Coyotes, who played without suspended captain Shane Doan but got a huge lift from the makeshift line of Torres, Langkow and Gilbert Brule (two assists).
"We just kept cycling the puck and working hard, nothing flashy, and keep using the back of the net," said Torres has six goals in the last 12 games at a time when many other Coyotes scorers have struggled. "I'm shooting to score right now, not just shooting to get pucks on net. I'm thinking back of the net right now."
O'Reilly spoiled Smith shutout bid with his 18th goal and Paul Stastny added another with 5:39 left in regulation for Colorado, which stormed playoff picture behind the stellar play of goalie Semyon Varlamov - who had a 1.68 goals-against average during the 11-3-1 surge.
Varlamov made 22 saves against the Coyotes but allowed two of the first six shots he saw to get past him.
The Coyotes are now 28-4-5 when scoring the first goal this season but had opened the scoring only once in their first 11 games this month. But despite playing without Doan, Adrian Aucoin and Taylor Pyatt, Phoenix dominated the first 20 minutes to take a two-goal lead.
Langkow started and completed the first goal with sheer hustle. Gobbling up a giveaway behind the Colorado net, Langkow centered the puck to the front of the crease for Torres. Varlamov got enough of the puck to stop it just short of the goal line, but Torres and Langkow both dove toward the puck and Langkow nudged it across at 3:24 for a rare early goal.
"Phoenix is a team like that. They wait for you to turn the puck over and then they capitalize on the chances," O'Reilly said. 'I don't think we were disciplined enough with the puck early."
After Smith protected the lead with saves on Stastny and Jamie McGinn, it happened again. Ray Whitney corralled a turnover in the Phoenix zone and turned it into a 4-on-1 rush the other way. Whitney feathered a pass over a charging Steve Downie that Chipchura tucked behind Varlamov with a backhand at 15:43.
"Their guy, I don't know what he was thinking stepping up on Whit and he just put it though," said Chipchura, who missed 14 games with an upper-body injury before returning Tuesday. "As soon as I got to the red line I knew I was going to get a breakaway out of it."
It was the 70th point of the season for the 39-year-old Whitney, who now has a point in 23 of his last 27 games and is four shy of becoming the 80th player in NHL history to reach 1,000 in a career.
Torres made it 3-0 at 16:55 of the second period by capping a voracious Phoenix shift that pinned Colorado in its zone. Brule set up Boyd Gordon for a shot that Varlamov stopped, but the long rebound dribbled out to Torres, who hammered in a one-timer to put the Coyotes in what appeared to be complete command.
But the Avs refused to roll over, outshooting the Coyotes 17-7 in the third period.
Smith stopped O'Reilly from point-blank range in the second period, but O'Reilly got his revenge 4:28 into the third by coming out from behind the Phoenix net, whirling and ripping a quick wrist shot over Smith for his team-leading 54th point of the season. The Avs made it a one-goal game just under 10 minutes later when Stastny deflected home a David Jones shot, putting the crowd of 14,938 on pins and needles the rest of the way.
But in the wild West, you'd better get used to it.
"Don't get too comfortable. Every day is' What have you done lately,' " said Smith, who notched his 100th NHL win while beat Colorado for the third time in as many decisions this season -- allowing a total of four goals in the process. "Seven games left and all of them are crucial. You have to keep pushing forward."