Remember that Neil Sedaka oldie, "Breaking Up is Hard To Do?"
Seems like creating separation among teams in the Western Conference is hard to do as well.
Coming into games of Saturday Jan. 22, 12 points separated third from 11th place. Playoff positioning is the quest, first and foremost, and Phoenix Coyotes coach Dave Tippett , keeps telling reporters that the final playoff spots will not likely be decided until the final hours of the season.
Next weekend, the NHL gathers in Raleigh for the All-Star Game, the traditional half-way break in the season. From here, it's playoff talk and playoff posturing. The distant goal is the Stanley Cup, but the road to lift Lord Stanley's holy grail is filled with hazards, traps, ebb and flow.
One team making an effort to create separation in the West is Phoenix.
The Coyotes, in recent times, have made an impressive move. Just a few weeks ago, Phoenix was 13th of 15 Western Conference teams, and Phoenix surged as high as fourth in the conference.
How quickly fortunes change.
A 4-3 loss to the Los Angeles Kings before 13,210 at Jobing.com Arena left the Coyotes in sixth place Jan. 22. Though tied with Anaheim at 57 points Jan. 22, the Ducks have two more wins and sit in fifth place after beating Montreal in a shootout.
"We had an opportunity to put LA 10 points behind ourselves, and couldn't do it," Tippett said after the Jan. 22 defeat. "Right now, we need to find ways to separate from other teams."
Rivalries in the NHL used to be passionate and compelling. That was before the first expansion of 1967 and the original six teams played each other 14 times, seven at home and seven on the road. Now, division teams play each other six times, three home and three on the road, and that's hardly time to fully recognize one's opponent.
In rare scheduling, the Kings and Coyotes met in back-to-back games, and Phoenix sought to create some room.
First, the Coyotes, behind Ilya Bryzgalov's 19th career shutout, whitewashed the Kings 2-0 on Jan. 20. When LA's Jarret Stoll scored falling in the slot at 4:57 of the final period two nights later, that gave the Kings a 4-3 win, and kept LA within sight of eighth place, the final playoff slot.
Still, it does not take much to fall from grace.
The Kings, one of the division favorites, have dropped nearly off the radar screen. The Kings broke out of the gate by winning 12 of first their 15 games, and surged to the top of the division standings.
Now on difficult times, LA has won just three wins in its last 13 games. With the victory over Phoenix Jan. 22, the Kings managed to deadlock St. Louis with 51 points, and tied for 11th in the conference.
"Actually, we have not been playing badly," LA coach Terry Murray said after the win over Phoenix Jan. 22. "The problem is we have not been scoring, and scoring is the bottom line. You can have great checking, great defense, great goaltending, but you need to put the puck in the net."
After the Kings jumped out to a 3-0 lead Jan. 22, the Coyotes responded with a pair from Lee Stempniak and one from Martin Hanzall to deadlock matters after two periods. Then, Stoll picked up the game-winner, and goal tender Jonathan Quick held off the Coyotes the rest of the way.
"We had two games with (LA), and wanted to get them both," said Stempniak, who now tops Phoenix in goals with 14. "We came up flat, and there's no reason for that."
The Coyotes appear in the market for help at the blue line. Defenseman Ed Jovanovski sat out his fifth straight game after taking a hit to the head by the Leafs' Mike Brown Jan. 13.
Derek Morris scratched for the Jan. 22 game with a lower body injury, as was David Schlemko. Defenseman Michal Rozsival left the Jan. 22 game with an undisclosed injury, and did not return.
The Coyotes have now lost three straight on home ice, and await the Edmonton Oilers Tuesday. Jan. 25 at home. Then, it's off to Denver for a match with the Avs Jan. 26 before the All-Star break.
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