GLENDALE, Ariz. – It doesn't take much of a losing streak to lose ground in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. The Phoenix Coyotes found that out the hard way last week, when a 0-2-1 mini-slump left them looking up at West teams that just keep winning.
The Coyotes got back on track with a tight 2-1 road win against the Minnesota Wild on Wednesday and have a chance to make up ground Saturday against the NHL-leading Chicago Blackhawks. Chicago moved eight points ahead of Phoenix with its fifth straight win, a 2-1 shootout victory against the Dallas Stars Friday.
Chicago is now 5-1 on a road trip that ends in Arizona, collecting points in bunches while the Coyotes scuffled before finding their game in front of backup goalie Thomas Greiss against the Wild.
"Before the game talked about not letting things spiral out of control, that losing three was bad enough," Phoenix defenseman Keith Yandle said. "The great teams find ways to end those runs quickly, and now we have to take the momentum from that win and run with it."
The Coyotes are off to a 15-6-4 start after 25 games and things are looking up off the ice as well. The game on Saturday is a sellout and all 87 luxury suites have been sold at Jobing.com Arena for the first time since the Coyotes moved to Glendale in 2003. Team officials are projecting the highest regular season gate revenue since the team moved to Arizona in 1996
The Coyotes still have defenseman Rostislav Klesla on the roster, but after clearing waivers this week he is likely headed for the Portland Pirates of the American Hockey League. Klesla was allowed to stay in Arizona to tend to personal matters but it was clear coach Dave Tippett wants him to play heavy minutes in the minors and work on improving his game.
With Zbynek Michalek still on injured reserve, rookie Connor Murphy will play his third NHL game and second straight against Chicago.
Still looking for more offense up front, the Coyotes signed forward Gilbert Brule to a one-year, two way contract Saturday. Brule, who had six goals in eight games with the Portland Pirates of the American Hockey League earlier this season, must clear waivers.
Griess improved to 2-0 as a starter with the win in Minnesota, but Mike Smith will be back in net Saturday. When these two teams get together a tight game is likely – seven of the past 15 games between Phoenix and Chicago have required a shootout, including a 5-4 Chicago win at United Center on Nov. 14.
"I love playing them," said Phoenix forward Rob Klinkhammer, who spent three-plus years in the Chicago organization and played his first NHL game with the Blackhawks. "It's fun playing against your buddies, I know a lot of those guys. They beat us in their barn last time so I think we owe them. It's going to be a huge game."
Here is how the Blackhawks and Coyotes lineups should look:
Patrick Sharp – Jonathan Toews – Marian Hossa
Brandon Saad – Michal Handzus – Patrick Kane
Kris Versteeg – Brandon Pirri – Andrew Shaw
Brandon Bollig – Marcus Kruger – Ben Smith
Duncan Keith – Brent Seabrook
Niklas Hjalmarsson – Johnny Oduya
Nick Leddy – Sheldon Brookbank
Scratched: Michal Rozsival
Injured: Bryan Bickell (lower body), Nikolai Khabibulin (lower body), Michael Kostka (lower body)
Shane Doan - Mike Ribeiro - David Moss
Tim Kennedy - Martin Hanzal - Radim Vrbata
Rob Klinkhammer - Antoine Vermette - Mikkel Boedker
Kyle Chipchura - Jeff Halpern - Jordan Szwarz
Michael Stone - Oliver Ekman-Larsson
Keith Yandle - Derek Morris
David Rundblad - Connor Murphy
Scratches: Rostislav Klesla, David Schlemko, Paul Bissonnette
Injured: Lauri Korpikoski (upper body), Zbynek Michalek (lower body)