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Coyotes back in top eight after beating Sharks

by John Kreiser
Mike Smith's debut as a Phoenix Coyote came in San Jose on opening night, and it was a nightmare -- he was shredded for six goals in a 6-3 loss that looked to be a harbinger of a tough season in the desert.

Since then, however, it's been Smith and the Coyotes who've been giving the Sharks nightmares.

Smith stopped 38 shots on Thursday night to shut out the Sharks for the third time this season, helping the Coyotes to a 2-0 win that jumped them back into the top eight in the Western Conference playoff scramble -- and bumped the Sharks out.

Smith survived a 15-shot barrage in the opening period before Radim Vrbata ended a 12-game goal drought with a power-play tally early in the second. Vrbata added an insurance goal in the third, and Smith did the rest as the Coyotes jumped from ninth to seventh.

With 89 points, the Coyotes are one in front of eighth-place Los Angeles and the ninth-place Sharks -- L.A. is eighth because it has played one fewer game. The Coyotes have the same number of points as the Pacific Division-leading Dallas Stars, who own the lead because they have a game in hand on Phoenix.

The Stars (in Vancouver) and Kings (in Edmonton) both play Friday; all four Pacific Division teams will have four games remaining in the season's final eight days.

No playoff berths were clinched in Thursday's seven games.

With 94 percent of the season played -- 1,160 of 1,230 games -- nine playoff spots, five division titles, both conference titles and the Presidents' Trophy remain up for grabs.

Here's a look at how the races in both conferences shape up entering the eight games on Friday's schedule:


Division leaders:

New York Rangers (105 points) moved closer to clinching the East without lifting a finger when Pittsburgh lost on Long Island. The Rangers can help themselves on Friday by beating last-place Montreal at Madison Square Garden.

Boston (94 points after Thursday's 3-2 shootout loss to Washington) rallied with two goals late in regulation to get a point after falling behind 2-0 earlier in the third period. The Bruins had a chance to win when Patrice Bergeron scored to start the third round of the shootout, but Tim Thomas allowed a pair of goals to leave the Bruins with a single point.

Florida (90 points after Thursday's 3-2 overtime loss at Minnesota) was within 31 seconds of a victory before allowing a game-tying goal to Eric Christensen and the winner to Mikko Koivu 15 seconds into overtime. The OT loss was the 16th post-regulation defeat this season for the Panthers, who continue their four-game road trip Friday in Columbus.

The next five:

Pittsburgh (100 points after Thursday's 5-3 loss at New York Islanders) was swept in a home-and-home by the Islanders for the first time in more than 25 years thanks to another poor defensive effort. They surrendered nine goals (plus an empty-netter) in the two losses to the last-place Isles and saw their chances of catching the Rangers take another hit. The Penguins try to bounce back when they visit Buffalo on Friday.

Philadelphia (98 points after Thursday's 7-1 win at Toronto) got two goals each by Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds to cruise past the struggling Maple Leafs. Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, filling in for injured starter Ilya Bryzgalov, faced only 17 shots. The Flyers host Ottawa on Saturday before visiting Pittsburgh on Sunday.

New Jersey (94 points after Thursday's 6-4 win against Tampa Bay) broke out of an offensive funk as six players scored against the Lightning. The Devils can clinch a playoff berth with a point on Saturday at Carolina.

Ottawa (88 points) had the third of four off-days. The Senators don't play again until they visit Philadelphia on Saturday afternoon.

Buffalo (86 points) was off again on Thursday. The Sabres host Pittsburgh on Friday night; they need a point to stay ahead of Washington.

On the outside looking in:

Washington (86 points after Thursday's 3-2 shootout win at Boston) pulled even in points with Buffalo despite losing forward Jason Chimera to a first-period game misconduct and starting goalie Tomas Vokoun with an injury during the long power play -- and blowing a 2-0 lead late in regulation. Brooks Laich's goal in the fourth round of the shootout gave the Caps the victory in a game they had to win. Washington hosts Montreal on Saturday.


Division leaders:

St. Louis (106 points after Thursday's 4-3 shootout loss at Chicago) rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the third period to force overtime but had to settle for one point after losing the shootout. A regulation or OT win would have given the Blues the Central Division title, but the single point did move them back on top in the race for the Presidents' Trophy.

Vancouver (103 points) takes a four-game winning streak into Friday's home game against Dallas. The Canucks have been outshot and outplayed by Los Angeles and Colorado this week, but flawless goaltending by Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider enabled them to escape with a pair of 1-0 wins.

Dallas (89 points) opens a tough back-to-back in Vancouver on Friday before concluding a tough four-game trip with a visit to San Jose on Saturday.

The next five:

Detroit (97 points) might have starting goaltender Jimmy Howard back for Friday's home game against Nashville. Howard said after Thursday's practice that his sore groin is healed and he's ready to go. But coach Mike Babcock said he wants to be extra careful and wasn't ready to make a decision.

Nashville (96 points) was off again on Thursday. The Preds visit Detroit on Friday and host Chicago on Saturday.

Chicago (95 points after Thursday's 4-3 shootout win against St. Louis) couldn't hold a 3-1 lead in the third period but went home with two points anyway when Dave Bolland scored in the fourth round of the shootout. The Hawks visit Nashville on Saturday and could have a chance to pass the Predators for fifth place.

Phoenix (89 points after Thursday's 2-0 win against San Jose) finished the season with a 4-1-1 record against the Sharks thanks to Smith and Vrbata, whose first goal ended an 0-for-16 home slump by the Coyotes' struggling power play. The Coyotes have Friday off before Anaheim comes to Arena on Saturday.

Los Angeles (88 points)
dropped a position on its day off. The Kings complete a three-game swing through Western Canada with a visit to Edmonton on Friday.

On the outside looking in:

San Jose (88 points after Thursday's 2-0 loss at Phoenix) fell out of the top eight after losing for the second time in as many days and scoring just one goal in the two games. The Sharks finish their season with two sets of home-and-homes -- they host Dallas on Saturday, return the visit on Tuesday, then end with two games against Los Angeles.

Colorado (86 points) faces a must-win game at Calgary on Friday. The Avs have to win and then watch and hope -- they have a six-day break before their next game.

Calgary (85 points)
also has to win Friday night and get help. The Flames have just three games left after Colorado comes to Scotiabank Saddledome on Friday.
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