GLENDALE, Ariz. - Bring on the Sharks.
With eight wins and 18 points in their last 10 games, the Phoenix Coyotes have forged a little daylight in their bid to nail down a Western Conference playoff spot -- they're three points ahead of Los Angeles and Nashville, and seven in front of ninth-place Dallas. And after blanking the Columbus Blue Jackets 3-0 on Thursday night, they can officially set their sights on San Jose and the opportunity to win the first division title in franchise's 31-year history.
San Jose is still in the driver's seat. The Sharks have a two-point lead (95-93) after losing to the Kings 4-3 in a shootout in Los Angeles on Thursday, and still have a game in hand on the Coyotes. But the two teams will meet three times in the final two weeks of the season, beginning Saturday night at Jobing.com Arena.
The Sharks have won all three previous meetings, rallying from 3-0 down in the last one for a 5-3 win on Feb. 1 in San Jose.
"To have a chance to decide everything in the final few games is really huge for us," Phoenix captain Shane Doan said. "They have a great team, and we're going to have to be really good. We had their number for the previous few years and this year they've had ours. Last game, we had control and it got away from us."
Defenseman Michal Rozsival and Derek Morris scored rare goals and Phoenix goalie Ilya Bryzgalov took care of the rest with a 29-save shutout in the victory against the Blue Jackets, who have won just twice in their last 14 games.
Morris scored his first goal in 27 games while Rozsival scored his third in 27 games since being acquired from the New York Rangers. Mikkel Boedker added his third goal late in the third period for the Coyotes, who have allowed just 10 goals in their last eight games.
"You never know where it's going to come from," Morris said of Phoenix's offense, noting the team has no 20-goal scorers but plenty of contributors. "I got lucky; I was just in the right place. (Columbus goalie Mathieu Garon) was letting a few rebounds kind of sit around there tonight. I was up in the play and hoping one popped out."
Bryzgalov, who is 7-2-0 with a 1.88 goals-against average in his last nine starts against Columbus, was much stingier. He recorded his seventh shutout of the season and 21st as a Coyote to tie Nikolai Khabibulin's franchise record. It was also Bryzgalov's 128th win with Phoenix, moving him within one of Bob Essensa's franchise mark. He needed just 251 games since being claimed on waivers from Anaheim in November 2007 to reach those milestones.
"I don't know why we had a slow start," Bryzgalov said. "Fortunately we found our legs, scored some goals and we were able to survive again.
"I think if we start the game against San Jose like today and the previous game (a 2-1 squeaker over St. Louis Tuesday), we are going to be behind. We have to be ready as soon as the puck drops."
The win didn't come without a price for Phoenix. Already without center Martin Hanzal (lower body) and defenseman Ed Jovanovski (orbital bone surgery), the Coyotes lost 18-goal scorer Lauri Korpikoski to an upper-body injury in the second period and enforcer Paul Bissonnette with a broken nose during a first-period fight with Jared Boll.
Since beating Phoenix 5-3 on Feb. 25, Columbus is 2-7-5 and lost for the seventh time in eight tries against the 'Yotes.
"I've seen tough times here but this is frustrating because you know you have a good enough team that they can play with the best in the league and we're making mistakes to lose games," Jackets captain Rick Nash said. "This is the time of the season where everyone is playing their best hockey and we're playing our best for periods of time.
"Perfect example: tonight. I thought in the first period we dominated them, and then they took it to us in the next two."
With the teams playing 4-on-4, Vernon Fiddler patiently held the puck along the left boards until Rozsival snuck in behind Columbus defenseman Craig Rivet and was all alone in the crease for the centering pass and tap-in at 3:51, just as Ray Whitney stepped out of the penalty box, making it a power-play goal. Overall, it was Rozsival's sixth goal this season.
After an apparent Eric Belanger goal was washed out by referee Stephen Walkom - who ruled Taylor Pyatt had the back of his skates in the crease and interfered with Garon - Morris completed a 3-on-1 rush by cleaning up Doan's rebound for his first goal since Jan. 17.
Boedker added some insurance by scoring with 4:59 left in regulation, and Bryzgalov finished off his second shutout in his last seven starts. His biggest test came in the second period when, out of position and with his back turned to the play, he got a leg on Antoine Vermette's finishing bid just outside the crease.
"Bryz was big and solid," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said. "There were a few pucks flying there that Bryz was in great position and found a way to get in front of them."