The question coming out of the All-Star break was "Who will go on a run?" Who would catch fire and grab that eighth seed in the Western Conference? It could be the Coyotes. Phoenix, winners of four of five now, take partial possession of the West's final playoff seed with a 4-1 win over the Dallas Stars.
"This is a team we're tied with, said Glen Gulutzan on Tuesday morning before this one. "This is direct competition. This is a team that wants what we want. This is a big game for us. They played last night. We're fresh. This is a real big game for us."
Playing last night is proving to not be a big deal for the Coyotes, who improve to 5-3-1 on the second night of back to backs with tonight's win. Compare that to the Stars' 0-8-1 record in that situation and this game paints a good picture of why these two teams seem to be headed in opposite directions right now.
The Coyotes would open the scoring about five minutes into the first period when Keith Yandle threw a wrist shot in from the point that appeared to deflect rather gratuitously off of Alex Goligoski and past Kari Lehtonen to give Phoenix a 1-0 lead after one.
A goal, a save, and a power play in the second period seemed to signal a change of momentum for the Stars. Michael Ryder skated through three retreating Phoenix defenders two minutes in and beat Mike Smith with a brilliant wrist shot under the blocker to tie the game. Lehtonen would then respond with a "save of the year" candidate at the other end and a four minute high sticking penalty to Mikkel Boedker gave the Stars all the time they needed to take the lead and turn momentum for good, but they were unable to connect and put just five pucks on net in the entire double power play.
An Eric Nystrom turnover inside the Stars' blue line would lead to the game winner for the Coyotes shortly thereafter, and Phoenix would add two third period goals, cruising to a 4-1 decision and a huge two points.
This one came down, on some level, to the Stars just losing too many one on one battles. The Coyotes compete level was there tonight. The Stars are still looking for theirs.
Dallas actually out-shot the Coyotes 29-24 in the loss, but Phoenix had the lions share of the quality chances. The Stars now face another back to back on the road this week as they travel to Columbus and Buffalo, before another big tilt with the Kings here this weekend.
More thoughts after the jump...
The Wild dropped a 3-1 game to the lowly Blue Jackets. It appeared the perfect chance for the Stars to take advantage, beat the Coyotes in regulation, and grab eighth place all to themselves. It could have been a huge spring board heading into a back to back later this week. Instead they're stuck scratching their heads.
The Stars are now just 3-5-1 against teams that are on the second night of a back to back. They cannot seem to take advantage of what should be a favorable situation.
Offense is the culprit still, even with Jamie Benn and Mike Ribeiro back in the lineup. It was easy to point to that before the break but that's two straight in which the Stars have managed just a single tally.
Over their last ten games the Stars have scored1, 0, 2, 1, 2, 1, 6, 2, 1, and 1. The outburst against the Ducks was fun but it looks like an aberration now as Dallas struggles to find the net, or even put pucks on net. Healthy or unhealthy, That's 17 goals. In 10 games. With a six goal outburst, even. I'll let you do the math.
What's even more frustrating is that over that stretch they've actually only allowed 24 goals. 2.4 goal against per game is something you can live with quite easily, but when you can't find the net it's a huge obstacle to overcome.
A trap game in Columbus now awaits them as they try not to think about their own back to back woes too much and fall prey to a team that bested the Wild tonight.
- "A lot of guys in black jerseys standing around," said Razor on the broadcast at one point. The Coyotes lack talent and any recognizable super stars but they were by far the peskier of the two teams, speeding around and winning puck battles. That the Coyotes played last night was completely forgotten. They appeared to be the much fresher, more confident, poised, prepared hockey team. At 5-3-1 now on the second night of a back to back, they do not use it as an excuse, and they've moved ahead of several teams now in the playoff race.
- Mike Smith's puck handling - Six years ago I would have told you that two out of every three goaltenders in this league would eventually be handling the puck a la Marty Turco. That's the direction in which things seemed to be headed. Here we are in 2012 and Mike Smith's puck prowess is still sticking out. It would have made me nostalgic if it weren't so annoying when it's happening to the team you're rooting for.
- 11,162 tonight, and didn't appear very close to that. This on the heels of a sellout against the Minnesota Wild on Saturday night. What explains a 7,500 person swing in attendance? Is the reality of the situation that the day of the week and the opponent are bigger factors than the hockey team itself? I hope not.
- Larsen has points in 4 of 6 games and is really starting to contribute in that regard, but he also is suffering from the same turnover problems plaguing the rest of the team. Through two periods he and Goligoski were leading the Stars defense in ice time by a mile, though in part to the failed four minute power play that doomed things.
- The Stars are now 2-2-0 against the Coyotes on the season and have just two chances more to affect the race between the two in a positive way. They'd need to win both to do it since the Coyotes have earned six points from just two victories as the losses came in the shootout. Dallas has earned only four from Phoenix.
- Minnesota lost tonight 3-1 to the lowly Blue Jackets. The Kings solved their scoring woes and put three in the net to beat the Lightning on the road. The Avalanche passed the Stars with a win over Chicago, and of course you know what the Coyotes did. The Stars go from 9th to 11th, instead of up to 8th.
- Kari Lehtonen is good. He kept the Stars in it for as long as he could, and when he went down the place went silent. Once again, you can't pin this one on him. That save in the second period is one you'll see on highlight reels for years to come.