Phoenix Coyotes Drive Toward Consistency, Eye Conference Position

Mark BrownContributor IJanuary 5, 2011

Scottie Upshall (8) celebrates his second period Jan. 4 goal with Sami Lepisto.
Scottie Upshall (8) celebrates his second period Jan. 4 goal with Sami Lepisto.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

As teams head into the second half and start thinking "postseason," the Phoenix Coyotes can look back on its opening three months and learn a few things.

In describing the first half, perhaps the noted word is "uneven."

The scoring was spotty and so were the wins. The Coyotes were hardly .500 as they went 17-13-8, 42 points in their first 38 games.

While coach Dave Tippett talks of "consistency," the task to strive for that variable appears elusive.

In its first 38 games, Phoenix put together one significant winning period—that was a seven-game winning streak between Nov. 10 and Nov. 27. This started with a 3-1 win over the defending Stanley Cup Blackhawks in Chicago and the streak ended when the Coyotes dropped a 6-4 decision to Anaheim at home.

Since, the team has not managed to put consecutive wins together and before Tuesday night's 4-2 win over Columbus before 8,222 at Jobing.com Arena, the Coyotes had dropped four of last seven games, including an overtime loss at Minnesota Jan. 2.

The Columbus game represented a microcosm of the season.

Following goals from Scottie Upshall and Sami Lepisto, they surrendered two Jackets' goals to tie the game. Capitan Shane Doan scored his sixth goal in his last five games at 11:11 of the final period to forge a 3-2 lead.

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Vernon Fiddler tallied 52 seconds later, and Phoenix picked up its third win in its last eight games.

The Coyotes failed to grind out 60 minutes against the Jackets, did not maintain a lead until late and could not play with a lead.

These are the kind of dynamics they will have to master if their season extends beyond April 8, the final regular season game.

"Our margin for error is so small, and every point is so  critical," Tippett said. "We need to continue to push until the All-Star game, and we'll get into the stretch drive."

The Coyotes' climb could be exacerbated by the performance of other teams.

Coming in the Columbus game, Phoenix was 12th among 15 Western Conference teams. After the win over the Jackets, the Coyotes had 44 standings points, 11 behind conference-leading Vancouver, 55 points.

The issue Phoenix, and several other clubs bunched together, is how separation is created.

In the West, eight teams are within three points of one another on Jan. 5, and the balance going forward may make it difficult for teams to separate from the pack.

"We need to find ways to get more on the road," Doan said. "Yeah, it's nice to contribute but we have different guys who step up every game. That's what we need to hang in there."

Though the Coyotes are three games from the half-way point of the schedule, the sense of urgency is becoming more apparent.

"(Beating Columbus) was a conference game, and picking up the two points was big," said Fiddler, who scored for the first time since a "hat trick" Nov. 12. "At this point, we need to find ways to pull out these games."

Now the trick is take the passion, drive and emotion and turn that energy into some kind of winning streak.

Ice Chips

With assists on two goals, Eric Belanger picked up just his seventh point, all assists, in his last 21 games. This was his first two-assist game since Nov. 23 against the Oilers.

The Coyotes were expected a productive stick from Belanger, whose biggest season was 17 for the 2005-06 L.A. Kings. His career high is assists was 24 for the 2007-08 Minnesota Wild.

Coyotes' forward Kyle Turris sustained an upper body injury in the second period and did not return.


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