Phoenix Coyotes coach Dave Tippett is convinced there's little separation between Western Conference teams.
In fact, the Jack Adams coach of the year from last season said, "It will be a dog fight to get in the playoffs."
The quest for the precious eight conference playoff spots, he is assured, will not likely be decided until the final hours of the season.
He may be right, but the coming weeks could represent a key barometer to the eventual value of the Coyotes' season. Beginning with its 5-1 victory over Toronto Thursday night before 11,205 at Jobing.com Arena, Phoenix had six of its next seven games at home and an opportunity to create some breathing space.
Prior to the Leafs games on Jan. 13, the Coyotes were sixth in conference standings. Their 51 points were tied with the defending Stanley Cup champions Chicago Blackhawks, but one point behind Nashville and Anaheim.
The Detroit Red Wings' 62 points topped all teams.
"This stretch is huge for us," said defenseman Keith Yandle, who contributed three points with a one goal and two assists. "If can pull out some wins, it will a good run for us."
Going forward, the Coyotes simply need to bunch wins together. With the win over the Leafs, Phoenix is now 5-0-2 in its last seven games and winners of three straight—that's the second longest winning streak of the season, only bettered by a seven-game streak from Nov. 10th to Nov. 27th.
Within the last few weeks, the Coyotes began to amass standing points, but as Tippett repeated several times this season, "we need to be consistent."
If the Coyotes are to climb in the standings, they will likely ride the efforts of goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. Thought Bryzgalov's goals against of 2.63 is higher than last season, the 29-year-old displayed against the Leafs the effort needed to help his team advance.
Solid in close, and help from a strong, back-checking defense, Bryzgalov aimed for his 19th career shutout that ended with the Leafs' Colby Armstrong scored with 3:52 left in the game.
"I thought we slept-walked through this one, but will take the two points," Tippett said.
"The one positive was Bryzgalov. I didn't like many things about the first period, but really liked Bryz."
Still, the current home stand looms as a critical part of the schedule.
After the stretch of these six home games, the Coyotes have a two-game road trip to Colorado and San Jose before returning another stretch of six games at Jobing.com Arena within seven contests, ending with a game against Atlanta on Feb. 17.
"We've talked about the importance of this stretch," Tippett said. "Right now, the schedule works in our favor, but we need to take advantage of that."
Coyotes defenseman Ed Jovanovski left the game with 53 seconds in the second period after taking a hard blow to the head from the Leafs' Clarke MacArthur.
Though no penalty was called, the hit caught the Coyotes' immediate attention.
"From what I saw at the big screen, it looked like an elbow to the head," said the Coyotes' Lauri Korpikoski. "We will see what (the league) says."
Yandle's three-point game was his third three-point game of the season; the others were against Dallas on Dec. 11th and Los Angeles on Dec. 28th.
The Coyotes now have three home games in four days beginning with Anaheim Sat. Jan, 15th; San Jose Monday afternoon, Jan. 17th; and Nashville, Jan. 18th.