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Oilers hope to play spoiler against Coyotes

by Matthew Mankiewich
COYOTES (35-26-11) at OILERS (28-36-7)


Last 10: Phoenix 3-5-2, Edmonton 4-5-1.

Season Series: The Coyotes roll into Rexall Place looking for a season sweep and a fifth straight win over the Oilers, against whom they've already taken nine of 10. They've already guaranteed a third straight series win, having taken three of four each of the previous two seasons.

Big story: The Coyotes launched themselves into the thick of the Western Conference race with an 11-0-1 February, but they've followed it with a 2-5-2 March, which has made their playoff position tenuous. Going into Saturday's action, they were tied with Colorado in the seventh and eighth spots, but with the Avs, Sharks and Kings playing, they could find themselves out of the playoff picture when they take the ice Sunday. A win, though, would bring them even with the Pacific Division-leading Stars and set the scene for their meeting on Tuesday. The Oilers have some opportunities to wreak havoc on teams' playoff aspirations as they did to the Flames on Friday in a 3-1 win, as five of their next six games will be against playoff contenders.

Team Scope:

Coyotes: The 'Yotes knew the game in Calgary would be difficult, not just because the Flames are chasing them, not just because of the hard-fought win in Vancouver that opened the back-to-back, but because they would have to play without leading scorer Radim Vrbata, top-line center Martin Hanzal and defenseman Adrian Aucoin.

The Flames took advantage early as Sven Baertschi scored 17 seconds in and ran away with the game, 4-1, for their fifth straight win. Coach Dave Tippett's 400th career victory would have to wait another night.

"This is desperation time," Tippett said. "For us to come out and play a game like that is unacceptable for our group."

Oilers: They ended up doing the Coyotes a favor. After the Flames handed the 'Yotes a loss, the Oilers went and did the same to the Flames, keeping their order in the standings -- at least temporarily.

The game started with a serious setback as Taylor Hall took a hard hit from Flames defenseman Cory Sarich, knocking him out of action for the evening with a concussion. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle took over from there, though, and the Oilers threw another wrench into the Western Conference works.

RNH scored twice and Eberle put up a goal and two assists, continuing a trend that began when they became linemates. Like the Sedins further west or Stamkos and St. Louis in Tampa Bay, the Oilers are developing a formidable duo.

"We just play very similar games as far as the way that we see the ice. I think our best characteristic is our smarts," said Eberle to the Edmonton Journal. "(Hall) is run and gun. He plays with a lot of speed and quickness, whereas we play a thinking man's game and I think that's why we play so well together."

Who's Hot: Oliver Ekman-Larsson has had an impressive week. He has goals in three straight games, the first time he's done that in his career. Ray Whitney has five assists in his last three games. Shane Doan didn't get on the board in Calgary but had four points in his three games prior. Eberle has six points in his last four games, while Nugent-Hopkins has six in his last five. Mike Smith has cooled off a bit in March along with his team, but still has a 1.67 goals-against average in his three meetings with the Oilers this year. Devan Dubnyk stopped 40 of 41 shots in the Oilers' back-to-back wins and may get a fourth straight start as a result.

Injury report: Hanzal (upper body), Vrbata (illness) and Aucoin (lower body) are still day-to-day, while forward Kyle Chipchura (upper body) has been cleared for contact and could be ready next week. Oilers forward Ben Eager (back) is also day-to-day.

Stat Pack: The Jets/Coyotes franchise has never swept the Oilers, the only time they came out of a season series with no losses was 2000-01 when they won two and tied two. Eberle has yet to score a goal in seven games against Phoenix, while Nugent-Hopkins and Hall each have two goals and three assists so far, as does Whitney on the other side.

Puck Drop: "He was coming down to make contact, he wasn't coming to pat him on the back. He was coming down to cream him. He did, but Taylor also slipped. That made it much worse than it could have been. It was a clean hit." -- Oilers coach Tom Renney on Cory Sarich's concussion-inducing hit on Taylor Hall
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