Coyotes' road to the top begins anew in Vancouver
Canucks look to even season series when they host red-hot Phoenix
Assured of making the playoffs, the Phoenix Coyotes have a bigger goal in mind when they roll into GM Place on Tuesday night to face a Vancouver Canucks team looking to carve out its own spot in the post-season.
The Canucks (45-26-4) are in third place in the Western Conference, but having dropped three of their last four games, they haven't wrapped up their date in the big dance yet. The team sits at 94 points — just five ahead of the eighth-place Colorado Avalanche for the division lead and nine points out of the grasp of the ninth-place Flames.
Looking for a boost after dropping a tough loss in San Jose against the Sharks on Saturday night, slowing down a streaking Phoenix squad (10-1-1 in their last 12 games) would do wonders for the team's confidence and its hopes of clinching a playoff spot.
A key to those goals will be the play of Henrik Sedin, who leads the league's scoring race. His 101 points total is one ahead of perennial point powerhouse Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals and the first time he's broken the century mark.
"It's a milestone," Sedin said. "It means something for sure and it's something you can look back on later. I thought I'd never reach that total, so it's real nice."
Another bonus would be a win for Roberto Luongo, who is 1-3-1 in his last five starts and owns a 3.39 goals-against-average. Luongo did shut out the Coyotes the last time he started against them, a 4-0 win in Vancouver on Jan. 7.
The Canucks will also look to keep the game in regulation — Phoenix leads the season series 2-1 with a pair of shootout victories, the last coming on March 10. The Coyotes' favourite weapon in the extra-point skills competition, Adrian Aucoin, bested Andrew Raycroft in the sixth round.
Coyotes exceeding even the wildest expectations
Taking close games like that have put the Coyotes (47-23-6) in a position few would have predicted at the season's beginning — capturing their first 100 point season in franchise history and their first playoff berth since 2002.
Quite a feat for a team that was expected to do nothing but occupy the basement of the league following a tumultuous off-season that saw the NHL step in and take over ownership.
"It's special for us as a team," said captain Shane Doan, who started his career with the team before it was relocated from Winnipeg in 1996. "Obviously there were a lot of doubts coming into this season by a lot of people. It's nice to answer those doubts and have an opportunity to do even better than that."
Phoenix clinched its spot in the playoffs with a Calgary loss at Boston on Saturday, but later put an exclamation point on the berth by lighting up the Avalanche in a 6-2 win.
A record of 10-1-1 since the trade deadline has the Desert Dogs just four points back of the San Jose Sharks for tops in the Pacific Division and overall lead in the West.
And it was a pair of deals before the trade deadline, picking up Lee Stempniak from Toronto and Wojtek Wolski from Colorado, that have the Coyotes at a breakneck pace.
Wolski potted a goal and added two helpers two in the win over his former club on Saturday, giving him a point a game in the 12 he's donned a Coyotes uniform.
Not to be outdone, Stempniak scored his 11th and 12th goals in that same stretch.
"It's one of those things where I'm just getting chances, and fortunately they're going in," said Stempniak, who had a mere 14 goals in 62 games with Toronto. "I'm just trying to go to the right areas and shoot the puck and keep riding the momentum."
With just six games remaining and one game remaining against the Sharks, the Coyotes' road to finishing at the top of the standings begins anew in Vancouver.
With files from The Associated Press