One of the great things about this time of year in the National Hockey League is following a team that’s in a competitive playoff race. As of this writing, there are six teams in the Eastern Conference within five points of the eighth and final playoff spot. In the Western Conference, it’s even more of a logjam. There are nine teams within three points of the eighth spot. In addition to the races for playoff survival, there are competitive races for the top spot in the Western Conference and a three-way battle for supremacy in the Atlantic Division.
The Coyotes, of course, are among the teams battling for a playoff spot. A 5-2-0 run prior to the All-Star break had vaulted Wayne Gretzky’s team to the fifth spot in the West. The last game before the break was a stirring 6-3 win over the defending Stanley Cup champion Red Wings. But since the break, the Coyotes have hit the wall…mentally, physically and emotionally. A six-game losing streak (all regulation losses) has seen the Coyotes drop to 13th place in the Western Conference.
Numbers don’t always tell the story, but there is one trend during this losing streak that is unmistakable: the Coyotes are yielding way too many goals both early and late in periods. If you look at goals against in the first or last three minutes of a period, the Coyotes have given up 12 in the last six games. That’s an average of two such goals per game. Even Panger could do that math…Holy Jumpin!
Highs and lows are expected over the course of an 82-game schedule, especially for a team that relies on so many young pros. Every team goes through these swings but it’s important to minimize the down periods as much as possible. I took a look (with the help of Megan Buchan from our TV production crew and our friends at Stats Inc) at the eight teams in the West that are currently separated by just six points and battling for four playoff spots: Dallas, Anaheim, Minnesota, Vancouver, Edmonton, Columbus, LA and Phoenix. Only three of these teams - Dallas, Anaheim and Columbus - have avoided a winless streak of five or more games. Not surprisingly, two of these teams are in the fifth and sixth spots in the West. Every other team on that list have gone five or more games without a win at least once this season: Minnesota (0-5-1), Vancouver (0-5-3), Edmonton (0-4-1), LA (0-3-2), Nashville (0-5-0), and Phoenix (0-4-2 & 0-6-0). The point is, nearly every other team in the race has gone through a slump. You have to find a way to turn things around. The good news is that there is plenty of time left in this season. When the Coyotes hit their last big slump last season, it came too late in the season to turn things around. Every one of the eight teams battling for a playoff spot in the West is looking at the reality of needing 35-40 points from now until the end of the season in order to get in.
As I’ve watched other games on the Center Ice package recently, it seems as if every game has playoff-like intensity. The Coyotes need to find the sense of urgency that they had in their game prior to the All-Star break. It has to come from the veterans, the young guys, forwards, defense and goalies. It’s not about thinking you need to win 20 of your last 28 games to make the playoffs. It’s about winning the next shift, the next period or the next game.
Yes, it’s a great time of year in the NHL. Watching your favorite team battle while keeping an eye on how all the other teams are doing. But right now, for the Coyotes, it’s all about taking care of their own business…winning their own games. If that doesn’t start right away, the out-of-town scoreboard could become irrelevant.
For phoenixcoyotes.com, I’m Dave Strader.