With nearly one-third of the NHL season in the books, a number of questions have emerged.
One centers on two unlikely teams, now at the top of their respective divisions, learning to survive and creating sustaining power.
On Dec. 10, the Minnesota Wild, sporting the best record in the league, skated into the desert to play Phoenix. Both teams were in first place in their respective divisions, but the test of time awaits.
With nearly four months left before playoff time, many would like to know whether Minnesota and Phoenix can stay atop not only their divisions, but the Western Conference as well. With teams like Vancouver, San Jose, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and Dallas gearing up for the playoff run, the task to stay ahead of the pack appears daunting.
The contest at Jobing.com Arena Dec. 10 looked like teams in opposite directions.
Though the Coyotes are at the top of the Pacific Division, they suffered their second straight clunker in dropping a 4-1 decision to the Wild before 10,976 fans. Phoenix has now lost three of its last five games, while Minnesota extended its winning streak to seven and has 12 wins in its last 14 games.
“I lost this one, and have to make saves,” said Phoenix goalie Mike Smith after this record dropped to 13-8-3. “The last week was not a good one, and I need to find ways to get out of this slump. I have to make saves, it’s as simple as that.”
Given the expected closeness of the Western Conference race, teams cannot fall into valleys and despair. With the loss to the Wild, that represented two consecutive poor outings for Phoenix in as many games. Two nights earlier, they fell behind to the Red Wings 5-0 before eventually losing 5-2.
“It’s no secret we play better with a lead,” Dave Tippett, the Phoenix coach said. “Unless you’re a real high-fire, power-play team, we have to grind it out and find ways to win.”
To exacerbate the Coyotes' current condition, the Wild picked up three power-play goals in four opportunities, and that didn’t sit well. Coming into the Minnesota game, the Coyotes were eighth in the NHL in killing penalties.
“Our penalty killing has been phenomenal,” said Coyotes captain Shane Doan. “(Against Minnesota) it was not the best. They capitalized on their chances and we did not. We have to find ways to generate better opportunities and when we get them, we need to capitalize on them.”
After taking the ice, it’s easy to see why Minnesota is off to a quick start. This team is quick and opportunistic, and players seem to be at the right place at the right time. Of course, strong goaltending is always a nice complement.
After missing the last three games with a groin injury, Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom returned between the pipes and held the Coyotes off the scoreboard until Lauri Korpikoski scored with just less then four minutes remaining in the game.
Coming into the Phoenix game, Minnesota was third in the NHL in goals against and trailed only the Bruins and Blues. Backstrom was 10-5-2 with a 2.15 goals against, and his effort against Phoenix only accentuated his value.
Overall, the Minnesota defense has allowed more than four goals in any one game just five times this season.
“There’s a ton of character on this team,” said Mike Yeo, the Minnesota coach. “They confront challenges and welcome challenges. That speaks volume to the character of this team.”
After a game in Anaheim on Wednesday, Dec. 14, the Coyotes are back home for a two-game homestand. The Edmonton Oilers come in for their second and final visit of the season. The Coyotes won the previous game at Jobing.com Arena 4-2 on Nov. 5. Then, the New York Rangers are in Saturday, Dec. 17. That precedes a streak of 11 of their next 15 games on the road between Dec. 20 and Jan. 18 for Phoenix.
Editor's note: Quotes in this story were obtained by the author during postgame Minnesota at Phoenix, Dec. 10 interviews.
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