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All-Star break might've sunk Coyotes' playoff hopes

by Eric Stephens

"It was a tough scenario for us in the sense that we battled some injuries. Some key guys were out of the lineup. And then you go through a stretch where we lost some heartbreakers. Some games that we really played well and we got beat."
-- Wayne Gretzky

If the Phoenix Coyotes miss the playoffs for the sixth-straight season, they might look back on six days in late January when their fortunes changed dramatically for the worse.

Call it the All-Star break curse.

It's the time off for the League's midseason showcase that struggling teams crave just to get away from the game and come back for the second half of the season refreshed for the stretch run. It's also the break teams don't want when they're rolling.

Cue the Coyotes. A young, skilled team sprinkled with gritty veterans who've been around the ice a few times headed toward a few days of rest and relaxation with five wins in seven games, punctuated by a rousing 6-3 home victory against the defending Stanley Cup-champion Detroit Red Wings.

The resulting 24-19-5 record was good enough for fifth in the Western Conference and there was legitimate discussion in and outside its Glendale, Ariz., home that the playoffs might be coming to the desert for the first time in seven years.

"We were feeling great," said Shane Doan, the Coyotes' venerable captain. "Unfortunately feeling great in January doesn't get you much."

Wayne Gretzky, in his fourth season behind the Coyotes' bench, might have sensed something coming.

"It's almost a bad time for a break because we're playing as well as we have in a long time," Gretzky told reporters at the time. "I think a year ago we would have found a way to lose that game, but maturity and want and will to win -- we've really come a long way here."

Much to his dismay, "The Great One" was quite the prophet.

Phoenix's first game following six days off was a disappointing 7-3 home loss to Anaheim. But that could have been spun as a team showing some rust after an extended rest, right?

So how do you explain eight more losses in a nine-game stretch? The answer hasn't been easy to find.

"It's hard to put your finger on it," said Doan, the franchise's last remaining link to its days in Winnipeg. "I think our specialty teams really dropped the ball. We played well in five of the six games. Five of the nine games we lost, we could have won them, but we found ways to lose.

"I think everyone elevated their game and we didn't realize that everyone was going to do that coming out of the break. We didn't. It's a good lesson for us."

The Coyotes might be over their post-break swoon after winning consecutive games against Atlanta and Los Angeles, but one wonders if too much damage to their postseason chances was done. Phoenix fell all the way to 15th and last place for a day and was in a tie for 13th with the Kings on Feb. 24.

The losses came in many forms -- blowouts, defensive struggles, offensive shootouts, at home, on the road. Particularly damaging was that they couldn't make it to overtime in any of them, resulting in no points gained.

"It was a tough scenario for us in the sense that we battled some injuries," Gretzky said. "Some key guys were out of the lineup.

And then you go through a stretch where we lost some heartbreakers. Some games that we really played well and we got beat.

"We just continuously seemed to lose our confidence. From there, it's one step at a time where you get yourself out of that rut and get your confidence back."

A 6-3 victory in Los Angeles on Feb. 21 might be the impetus for Phoenix to claw itself back into playoff contention. Olli Jokinen got his first hat trick since joining the Coyotes via trade and his effort helped them rally from a 2-1 first-period deficit against another playoff-seeking young team.

"You look at the standings. It's really tight," Jokinen said. "We believe we can be a playoff team.

"I think the first 50 games we proved that. We were in [fifth] place at the All-Star break and we've let it slide a little bit. We've got to win the next game."

Doan discounted the idea that the break had something to do with cooling them off, raising another point that could have been a contributing factor.

"As a younger team, maybe you hear that you're good, you hear that you're playing well, you hear that you're in the fifth spot and maybe you let your guard down a little bit," he said. "There's really no explanation for it but we've got to be better."

The Coyotes have taken on the mantra to "win the next one." Living in the moment may be the tonic for a franchise that has dealt with off-the-ice issues within its management structure along with the recent revelation that it may be up for sale.

Doan has been through it all, but said the team is too young to be bothered by thoughts of the franchise being sold. But he did acknowledge that the Coyotes making the playoffs would be "huge" and "would make everything a lot easier, that's for sure."

"No one's been in Phoenix long enough other than myself to really be affected by it," he said. "As a young team, you're more worried about whether you're going to be in the lineup than what's going on outside the dressing room. Hopefully we can get going and it'll make that a lot easier."

The next week may determine whether the Coyotes will get back in the playoff race and, perhaps as important, stay intact.

Used to his name coming up in trade rumors when he was with Florida, Jokinen is aware that his name is being floated as someone that could move by the March 4 trade deadline. But the big Finnish center is focused on plying his trade.

"I just play hockey and live the dream," said Jokinen, who's played in 777 regular-season games but has yet to appear in the postseason. "Rumors are rumors. Bottom line, if the team's winning, everybody's happy. We would probably add players.

"Now our job is play as hard as we can every single day. That's what we play for. Rumors are rumors, you know. That's all I can say."
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