Phoenix Coyotes: Playoff Run May Be Coyotes' Last in the Desert

Mark BrownContributor IMarch 30, 2012

Mike Smith stopped 38 shots to record his sixth shutout of the season.
Mike Smith stopped 38 shots to record his sixth shutout of the season.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

This could be the Phoenix Coyotes' last stand in the desert.

Not only are the Coyotes on the Western Conference playoff bubble, they remain on the “ownership bubble.”

With just a week to go in the regular season, it appears no future ownership is anywhere on the horizon and the NHL reminds interested parties not to worry.

At this point, the matter of the franchise remains a distant thought.

Discussion, these days, centers around making the playoffs. Along with Dallas, Los Angeles, San Jose, Colorado and Calgary, the Coyotes are fighting for their postseason lives.

Assuming the Stars or Kings win the Pacific Division, the final two playoff spots are between four teams. Granted, the Avs and Flames have a distant chance, so the Coyotes have their sights on San Jose and the Kings.

If the Coyotes have a playoff spot on their radar screen, they did not skate with a great sense urgency at first in meeting the Sharks Thursday night at home.

Coming off a critical loss to the Ducks the night before, San Jose skated strong early, peppered Mike Smith with 14 first-period shots and titled the rink. For a team on the brink, the Coyotes looked more desperate than assured.

After that slow start, two essential elements in any hockey triumph surfaced for the Coyotes.

The sniper sniped, and the goalie saved.

In a game the Coyotes absolutely had to have, sniper Radim Vrbata scored twice, and Smith, the goalie, made 38 saves to keep Phoenix in the game. In the end, the efforts of these two players as well as the defensive force of the Coyotes, gave Phoenix its most important win of the season, a 2-0 victory over the San Jose Sharks before 14,446 at Arena.

“There was a great sense of urgency beginning in practice (Wednesday),” said Dave Tippett, the Coyotes coach. “The team was very focused and very determined. We had players returning and that paid dividends.”

With captain Shane Doan back after a three-game suspension, Vrbata back after an allergic reaction to penicillin and Adrian Aucoin back after sitting out the last six games with a lower body injury, the Coyotes clearly realized the value of this game.

“We’ve felt an urgency for the last several games,” said center Ray Whitney, who assisted on both Vrbata goals. “The urgency has been there. We have four left and they’re all critical. We have to take the momentum from this one and take it to the next games.”

With the victory, Phoenix sits in seventh spot in the West with 89 points and has played 78 games. Los Angeles has 88 points but has played 77 games. By losing, the Sharks remain with 88 points and have played 78 games.

In one facet of the game that has eluded the Coyotes all season, the power play provided a spark of energy.

Coming into the Sharks game, the Phoenix power play ranked last in the league. Hitting at a 12.8 percent clip, fortunes turned when Vrbata, returning after missing five of his last seven games, popped in his 31st goal of the season, and team-high eighth with the man advantage at 3:49 of the middle session.

Vrbata added his second of the game when he converted a Whitney pass from a two-on-one into his 32nd of the season at 8:17 of the final period. Then, Smith took over from that point.

In the opening game of the NHL season, Smith allowed six goals to the Sharks in 39 minutes (6-3 loss) and now has given San Jose five goals in the last five games. That includes three shutouts in his six games against the Sharks.

For Smith, it’s quality over quantity.

“The win was the most important thing,” Smith said after recording his sixth shutout of the season, and the 17th of his NHL career. “The shutout says something about the guys working in front of me. All these wins are huge, and we knew what this game was all about.”

For San Jose, the shark tank may be empty soon.

“We don’t have much of an option,” said forward Ryane Clowe. “In the last two games (losses to Anaheim and Phoenix), we put ourselves in a hole. We can’t afford to lose any more games and if that means 4-0, then, yeah.”

This is a team which lost in the Western Conference finals the last two season and is threatened not to make the playoffs.


Ice Chips

The Coyotes have four left, two at home with Anaheim and Columbus and back-to-back games next Friday and Saturday in Minnesota and St. Louis…The Sharks have four left, two each with Dallas and Los Angeles…This was Vrbata’s first two-goal game since Feb. 21 at home against the Kings, and seventh of the season…The two assists by Whitney was the seventh time this season for this achievement, and he also recorded three assists in a game March 14 at Vancouver.


Editor's Note: Quotes in this story were obtained by the author in post-game San Jose at Phoenix, March 29, 2012 interviews.