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Coyotes begin critical stretch against Rangers

by Tal Pinchevsky

COYOTES (34-26-11) at RANGERS (39-29-4)


Last 10: Phoenix 7-3-0; New York 6-3-1

Season series: It has been almost six months since the Phoenix Coyotes opened the season with a 4-1 home win against the New York Rangers. They play for the second and final time in a rematch that could have major implications with each team marching toward the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Big story: With a handful of games remaining in the 2013-14 season, the Coyotes and Rangers have each gained a favorable place in the race for a playoff spot. Phoenix holds a two-point lead against the Dallas Stars for the Western Conference's second and final wild-card spot and the Rangers are third in the Metropolitan Division, three points ahead of the Washington Capitals.

Team Scope:

Coyotes: Phoenix opens a three-game Eastern trip Monday at Madison Square Garden and its performance on that swing could ultimately dictate whether or not it makes the playoffs. A travel day Sunday gave the Coyotes, and goaltender Mike Smith in particular, an opportunity to get some much-needed rest.

Smith has led the Coyotes' recent surge. He's started 11 straight games, and has a 1.86 goals-against average and .937 save percentage since Feb. 1. The Coyotes' chances of securing the second wild card, which could come down to a season-ending home game against the Stars on April 13, will depend largely on Smith's play.

Rangers: New York enjoyed a day off Sunday after a 3-1 road win against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday before beating the New Jersey Devils 2-0 the following night in two games that had a playoff-like atmosphere.

Against a Devils team in desperate need of points, defenseman Raphael Diaz didn't look out of place in his first game with the Rangers, who acquired him from the Vancouver Canucks for a 2015 fifth-round pick on March 5. Filling in for the injured John Moore (concussion), Diaz helped New York's defense hold New Jersey to 11 shots in the first two periods to help goaltender Henrik Lundqvist set a new franchise record with his 50th career shutout.

Defense has been key in the Rangers' quest for a playoff spot. They have allowed two or fewer goals in seven of the past nine games.

"You're in playoff hockey. You've got to play hard at both ends," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said after the win in New Jersey. "That's what our guys did."

Who's hot: Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson has two goals and five points in his past six games. Defenseman Keith Yandle has two goals and 15 points in his past 15 games. … Rangers center Derek Stepan has three goals and four points in his past four games. Defenseman Ryan McDonagh has a goal and three points in his current three-game point streak.

Injury report: Phoenix defenseman David Schlemko is out with a bruised foot. … Rangers forward Derek Dorsett (flu) missed the game on Saturday, but could be back.

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