If the Phoenix Coyotes are to demonstrate their mettle during this run to the playoffs, mid-February back-to-back games may be a telling barometer.
In facing the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks Feb. 12 and the Alex Ovechkin-led Washington Capitals two nights later, that kind of competition could help define the Coyotes' emotional state.
Aside from playing a solid 60 minutes every night, Phoenix must also find ways to win. Coach Dave Tippett constantly tells reporters that the race for Western Conference playoff spots will be highly contested. Tippett likes to point out that, to be prepared, the mental and emotional game needs to be fever pitch each night.
That was evident in the first half of this important two-game set against Chicago. Before their second sell-out crowd of the season, the Coyotes jumped out to an early lead, and lost that advantage and eventually defeated the Blackhawks 3-2 in a shootout.
The win was the Coyotes' fourth in a row since a 6-0 debacle to Vancouver at home Feb. 2.
"We looked at the Vancouver game as a slap in the face," said Tippett after the Chicago game. "That put things in perspective for us, and showed this team what we have to do to get back."
Elements of the game demonstrated against Chicago—for the Coyotes to gain a playoff slot—need to continue. They skated a crisp and determined pace, the forwards back-checked well, Phoenix skaters were getting to loose pucks first and the 'Hawks transition game was neutralized.
Above all, the Coyotes received a stellar effort from Ilya Bryzgalov in net. He was particularly strong in the first period, when the 30-year-old turned away Chicago 12 shots, many strong scoring opportunities.
After the Coyotes jumped out to a 2-0 lead on goals from Radim Vrbata and Tyler Pyatt, the 'Hawks responded to tie the game. First, Troy Brouwer put the 'Hawks on the board late in the second period, and then reigning Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith's power-play goal deadlocked matters with just over four minutes remaining in the game.
Then, Bryzgalov preserved the tie when he stopped Patrick Kane on a breakaway with just over one minute remaining in the overtime, and clearly accentuated the value of strong goaltending.
"We're starting to win the tight games, and that's important," said Pyatt, who picked up his 14th of the season against the 'Hawks to tie Lee Stempniak for third on the team in goal scoring. "We know we can handle these kinds of games, and know what we need to do from here on out."
Now, Ovechkin and the Capitals skate into the desert. Washington is in second place in the NHL's Southeast Division, and begins a five-game road trip Feb. 14 against the Coyotes. From Phoenix, the Caps then go to Anaheim, San Jose, Buffalo and Pittsburgh before turning home to the Verizon Center on Feb. 25 to face the Islanders.
Vrbata picked up the game winner in the shootout, and now has four goals in his last three games. After captain Shane Doan went first in the shootout and missed, Vrbata beat Corey Crawford on the forehand for the win.
"I don't like to go first [in a shootout]," Vrbata said. "I like to watch the goalie and see how I can beat him." Earlier, his forehand over Crawford at 15:06 of the opening period gave Phoenix an early 1-0 lead.
In the shootout, Bryzgalov stopped, in order, Jonathan Toews, Kane and Marion Hossa to help gain the win.
The Coyotes conclude their current stretch of six home games in seven with the Caps on Valentine's Day, and then Atlanta Feb. 17.