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Coyotes aim to bounce back at Columbus

by Frank Mentesana
COYOTES (33-24-9) at BLUE JACKETS (20-38-7)

: FS-O (HD)

Last 10: Phoenix 6-3-1; Columbus 4-5-1.

Season Series: This is the third of four meetings and the second in four days. The Blue Jackets have claimed both prior matchups, accounting for 10 percent of their wins on the season. In the first encounter on Jan. 13, Todd Richards picked up his first victory as Columbus' interim head coach, as Derick Brassard notched a goal and an assist in a 4-3 home win. This past Saturday in Glendale, Rick Nash's two goals and an assist lifted the Blue Jackets past the Coyotes, 5-2. Nash has 17 goals and 33 points in 32 career games against Phoenix.

Big Story: March has certainly come in like a lion for Phoenix. After a nearly-perfect February where they posted an 11-0-1 record, the Coyotes are still searching for their first win of March. They have been outscored 11-5 in three straight losses to begin the month, falling out of the Pacific division lead and into seventh in the Western Conference. The 'Yotes and Dallas each have 75 points in 66 games, but the Stars have more regulation/overtime wins to put them atop the division. San Jose, the current eighth seed, also looms closely behind with 73 points in 64 games.  

Contrarily, the Blue Jackets have won back-to-back road games to open up March and are playing solid hockey recently, despite their position in the standings. While still 30th in the League with just 47 points, they are 7-6-1 in their last 14 games.

Team Scope:

Coyotes: The Coyotes traveled to Pittsburgh for a game with the red-hot Penguins on Monday sandwiched between this home-and-home with Columbus. Despite an excellent effort, they couldn't overcome a first-period 2-0 deficit and ultimately dropped a 2-1 decision. Falling behind early has become a theme for Phoenix recently, as it has been outscored 12-2 in the opening period over its last seven games. Ray Whitney stayed hot by netting his 21st goal of the season early in the third, but that was the only shot out of 37 to elude Marc-Andre Fleury. The man in the other net, Mike Smith, lost his third straight following a franchise-record 11-game winning streak that earned him the NHL's First Star for February.

"We've been chasing the game every single night for the last four or five, and the last three have cost us," captain Shane Doan said. "We felt we controlled the game for most of the game. We wanted to get our game turned around, we weren't happy with our last two games at all, and tonight we played closer to what we need to."

Blue Jackets: Nash's pair of tallies on Saturday gave Columbus a 2-0 edge early in the second -- though that lead promptly evaporated when Phoenix scored twice later in the stanza. Third periods have been tough for the Blue Jackets this season, but they regained their composure to score three times in the third for a 5-2 win. Defenseman Nikita Nikitin put Columbus ahead 3-2 midway through the period, not only giving him goals in back-to-back games for the first time in his NHL career, but also giving him the game-winner in consecutive games. Steve Mason stopped 30 shots, including all 14 he faced in the final period, in his second great outing in a row. Coupled with Thursday’s 2-0 victory at Colorado, the Jackets won consecutive games in regulation for the first time since Feb. 22-25, 2011.

"Everyone knows we’re out of the playoffs, but we've set goals for ourselves for these last 18 games," said Brassard, who has points in three straight after registering a goal and an assist in the victory. "It shows a lot that guys are showing character and still trying to beat teams. We're trying to get ready for next season and try to finish the season strong."

Who's Hot: Whitney, who is tops on the club with 39 assists and 60 points, has goals in five of his last six games. … Nash, who leads Columbus with 24 goals and 47 points, has found the back of the net in five of his last seven.

Injury Report: Phoenix forward Kyle Chipchura (wrist) and defensemen Rostislav Klesla (upper body), Derek Morris (family illness) and David Schlemko (foot) remain sidelined. … The Blue Jackets are without Kristian Huselius (groin), Jared Boll (broken foot), Marc Methot (broken jaw) and Radek Martinek (post-concussion symptoms), who will miss the rest of the season.

Stat Pack: Tuesday's matchup features the League's worst power play (13.4 percent for Phoenix) against the worst penalty kill (75.9 percent for Columbus). Offensively, however, the Jackets' special teams have excelled lately. They have converted 14 of 56 power-play chances over their last 14 games, while scoring shorthanded goals in three of their last four. Overall, Columbus has seven shorthanded tallies on the season, tying them for fifth in the NHL.

Puck Drop: The Blue Jackets have been playing better over the last month partly because their performance in the third period has vastly improved. According to their official web site, the Jackets were 8-6-2 when leading after two periods at one point this season. They are now 14-6-2, which is still the worst mark in the League, but it is a sign of growth that the franchise hopes will make for better results in the future. 

"We handled the adversity," Richards said, referring to two quick goals by Phoenix that erased Columbus' 2-0 lead in the second period of Saturday's win. "The crowd was into it and you could see they clearly had the momentum. We finished the (second) period strong, but it was a great hockey game. I liked the way we responded in the third. When they scored those two goals, I don't think there was any panic from anybody. Everybody liked the way we were playing the game, and the guys knew it and felt it."
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