Since rolling into the desert a decade and a half ago, the Phoenix Coyotes have played few meaningful games.
Sure, they had a playoff run last season, and even took the Detroit Red Wings to seven before exiting the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Now, the Coyotes engage in perhaps their biggest set of games since arriving from Winnipeg, and appear on the brink of joining the elite in the NHL’s Western Conference.
Coming into play Saturday March 26, Phoenix is two points out of first place in the Pacific Division with six games to play. Three of these final six are against the San Jose Sharks, the team directly ahead, and these two teams collide for the first of three March 26 at Jobing.com Arena.
True, the Sharks have a game in hand, but two of the three between these teams are scheduled for Glendale. Plus, the Coyotes and Sharks end the season with a home-and-home set April 8 and 9.
While the importance of these games is downplayed by the principals, and reference made to simply getting better and find ways to win, the Coyotes cannot ignore the meaning of a first place finish. San Jose, a preseason favorite to be one of the NHL’s best this season, floundered early, but now appears to playing the way pundits predicted.
Still, the San Jose series represents a significant stepping stone for Phoenix if the Coyotes are to join the top teams.
“Sure, these are big games, but every game now for us is huge,” Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said March 24 after the Coyotes shut out Columbus 3-0. “We have to be opportunistic and get in position to take advantage.”
If the Coyotes qualify for the playoffs and make some noise in the second season, goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov will be the catalyst.
In recording his seventh shutout of the season and the 23rd in NHL career against the Blue Jackets March 24, Bryzgalov continues to show why he is a candidate for the Vezina Trophy. If he is able to see the puck clearly, the save is likely made, or least, that’s the game plan.
“Our job is to keep guys to the outside, and let Bryz see the puck,” said defenseman Derek Morris, who recorded his fifth goal of the season March 24 against Columbus. “We don’t want to get beat on a bad goal.”
For his part, Bryzgalov has lead the Coyotes to an 8-1-1 record in its last 10 games leading up to the first San Jose game March 26. In his last 21 games prior to the first San Jose game, the 30-year-old Russian native is 15-4-2 with four shutouts.
Bryzgalov needs one win to tie Bob Essena (129) for the most franchise wins by a net minder, and is currently tied with Nikolai Khabibulin, at 21, for most franchise shutouts.
Tippet indicated he will go with Bryzgalov down the stretch, and assured reporters his goalie will received adequate rest.
“I knew Bryzgalov was among the elite in the league when I got here,” Tippett added. “He is top notch, and we rely on him heavily.”
The first San Jose game is the fourth of the Coyotes current home stand, with games remaining against Dallas (March 29) and Colorado (April 1).
Against Columbus, the Coyotes lost forward Lauri Korpikoski with an upper body injury in the second period. Also, forward Paul Bissonnette sustained a broken nose in a second period fight. Both did not return.