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'It's the Most Important Trip of the Year'

Coyotes head to Western Canada for three critical games against playoff-anxious opponents

by Alex Kinkopf @AEKinkopf / Arizona Coyotes

Simply put.

Let's not get too far-fetched, but let's also remain somewhat realistic; the playoffs, theoretically, begin in the form of Wednesday night's game against Vancouver.

There are 15 games left in the season, that's a lot of hockey yet to be played. However, there's little room for error in the tightly packed, oversaturated Western Conference playoff race.

The standings will tell the story. There are really only two teams in the Pacific Division and Western Conference wild card chase that are treading in what some may categorize as relatively 'safe waters'. The Vegas Golden Knights and the Edmonton Oilers.

Then six teams follow. That group includes the Coyotes. It's a sextet that, entering play on Wednesday, is separated by just three points, flowing from as high as third-place in the Pacific Division to fifth in the wild card rankings. Arizona is to play three of those clubs on this three-game, six-day trip.

The top five teams in the Western Conference wild card race are now separated by just two points.

Conor Garland knows what's on the line. "I love it," he said.

"It's the most important trip of the year, we've got three teams that are right around us, chasing and tied," he said. "It could be a season-changing trip, we'll see how it goes, but we've just got to start with Vancouver, try to get those two points, play the way we want to play and start the road trip the right way."

Rick Tocchet's a big proponent of practice, and his team has had plenty of it leading into the trip. The Coyotes, riding the tail-end of what is arguably their lightest stretch of schedule, have played just two games in the past 10 days.

Tocchet is looking to benefit from detailed rehearsal and a healthy dose of rest.

"At this time of year, you should want to play important games, and the Vancouver game is as important as it's going to get," he said. "This Vancouver game is the 'ol 'this is the most important game of the year' type of game, and that's what you live for, playing these important games."

If anyone on the roster has experience playing meaningful, playoff-implicating hockey, it's Niklas Hjalmarsson , who has three Stanley Cup championships and 128 playoff games on his decorated NHL resume. "We definitely need every single guy here to contribute," said the veteran defenseman. "We know that the further it goes, the harder it is to win games; it's much harder, there's less space, things get more physical, it's a different type of game."

"We're all ready and excited for this challenge," he added. "These are the types of games you want to play."

The playoff picture could look different come Wednesday morning, when the Coyotes will hold a morning skate at Rogers Arena ahead of their game against the Canucks. There are two games on Tuesday night involving three teams (Nashville, Minnesota, Winnipeg) that have a direct impact on where the Coyotes stand.

Regardless of those outcomes, Alex Goligoski reiterated that outside results won't alter the significance of facing Vancouver, Calgary, and Winnipeg. "It's three teams that we're right next to in the standings, they're big games, they're four-point games."

"These will definitely be the most important games we've played thus far," he added, noting that he expects the team to be operating with a stern sense of urgency. "If we have a good trip, we're putting ourselves in a good spot. On the flip side of that, if we have a poor trip, it's not looking good."

It begins against the Canucks. These teams, two points separated, are scheduled to face each other three times over the course of the Coyotes' final 15 games, and twice in the next four games.

At the end of the day, it's about controlling the controllables.

And that's themselves.

"We have to worry about ourselves," Tocchet stressed. "We have to play our game on Wednesday and that's all we can worry about. We can't worry about the Calgary game or the Winnipeg game, all we can worry about is Vancouver, the first period."

Lead Photo Credit: Devin Manky - Icon Sportswire via Getty Images // Second Photo Credit [Garland]: Derek Cain - Icon Sportswire via Getty Images // Third Photo Credit [Hjalmarsson] - Bill Wippert - NHLI via Getty Images // Footer Photo Credit: Norm Hall - NHLI via Getty Images

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