Tuesday, April 8, 2014
Stars, Coyotes watching the scoreboard
By Pierre LeBrun
The Dallas Stars will hit the ice about 90 minutes after the Phoenix Coyotes get going in Columbus on Tuesday night, meaning the Stars will already know what’s going on in that game.
Stars captain Jamie Benn isn’t going to lie: There’s some scoreboard watching going on these days with his team beginning the last week of the regular season one point ahead of the Coyotes for the final wild-card playoff spot in the Western Conference.
"It’s kind of hard not to look at the scoreboard," Benn told ESPN.com Monday afternoon. "We’ve been saying it around the room, though, we don’t want to rely on other teams to win games for us or lose games for us. It’s up to us. We definitely have a chance to get into the playoffs ourselves, and we don’t want to be relying on other teams to do our work for us."
No question, meanwhile, the Coyotes will also want to check out how the Stars are faring at home against Nashville on Tuesday night.
"We’ll definitely take the odd glimpse at the scoreboard," Coyotes captain Shane Doan said after his team arrived in Columbus Monday afternoon. "Each team controls their own destiny this week, but at the same time, it’s not like you wouldn’t rather ... get in more comfortably."
As Doan pointed out, both the Stars and Coyotes indeed control their own fate. Dallas is one point ahead and owns the ROW (regulation and overtime wins) tiebreaker, but the Stars and Coyotes finish the regular season against each other Sunday night in Glendale. Therefore, a perfect 4-0-0 record this week clinches the final playoff spot for that team.
"We’d much rather be in Dallas’ position right now than ours, but at the same time, we’re happy we at least control our own destiny," Doan said. "If we find a way to win our games, we’re OK. If we don’t, we’ll have only ourselves to blame."
Quite frankly, with three home games on tap before Sunday’s finale, the Stars sure hope that game in Glendale is meaningless, which would be the case if the Coyotes have one more loss in regulation this week while the Stars win those three home games versus Nashville, Columbus and St. Louis.
"It’s definitely three big games that you have to take advantage of, especially when you’re this close to the playoffs," Benn said. "We’ve got a pretty good home record [21-10-7]. We’re not looking too far ahead to that game against Phoenix. Hopefully it won’t mean anything and we’ll already be in the playoffs by then."
The Coyotes have road games in Columbus and Nashville, followed by back-to-back home games with San Jose and Dallas to close out the regular season.
Neither club has set the world on fire of late, with the Stars missing a golden chance to pad their lead by losing at 29th-place Florida on Sunday and the Coyotes going winless their last four games (0-2-2).
We asked a Western Conference team scout to give us his breakdown of this race. "I'll tell you, it is splitting hairs with these two teams," he wrote via email. "This time of the year, you like a more veteran team to withstand the pressure of making/missing the playoffs, so that goes in favor of Phoenix. Dallas has a much better winning percentage against the remaining teams they play. Phoenix has gotten a lot of mileage out [of] their power play this year and they haven't been as stingy defensively but have improved lately. Dallas is at home three of their last four games and should be hungry to get into the playoffs.
"Analytical people might suggest Phoenix has the upper hand, but I think Dallas gets in. Might be having been on the outside looking in for so long or the extra motivation of the [Rich] Peverley situation. I also think [Kari] Lehtonen can be a wall back there."
The Coyotes haven’t had starting goalie Mike Smith since he injured his knee March 24, but backup Thomas Greiss can’t be blamed for the recent struggles, Doan said.
"He’s been amazing, he’s been really good, it’s got nothing to do with him," said the Coyotes captain. "We’re just not scoring right now."
As in scoring four goals in their last four games. That’s not going to cut it, regardless of who’s in net.
The Stars, meanwhile, are trying to shed a half-decade of misery, as Dallas has missed the playoffs five straight seasons. Finally making the playoffs would matter a ton to that franchise.
"It would mean a lot," said Benn, who is having an outstanding season. "Especially for the players, and the fans as well. They deserve playoff hockey and we want to give it to them."
There’s some leadership coming through over the phone line, loud and clear.
Benn hasn’t yet played an NHL playoff game. But he returned from Sochi, Russia, with an Olympic gold medal hanging around his neck, and the experience he gained playing in those pressure-packed games could come in handy this week.
"You know, I learned a lot over there," Benn said. "We had such a great group of leaders and guys on that team. It’s definitely a different feeling playing those winner-take-all, one-game playoffs. It’s an experience I can bring back in terms of playing in those high-pressure situations in the games that mean the most. It’s going to feel the same this week; you definitely have to win or else you feel like you haven’t done anything."
The reality is that more people picked the Coyotes to make the playoffs this season -- not so much the rebuilding Stars. But the disappointment would be felt equally in both dressing rooms, regardless of differing preseason expectations.
For the Coyotes, Western Conference finalists just two years ago, there’s the added incentive of having new owners who finally stabilized the franchise last summer. Throwing them the odd playoff date would be a nice gesture.
"Yeah, without a doubt, that’s something you think about and you’re aware of," Doan said. "You appreciate what they’ve done for us and you know the playoffs are big for any team, especially for us trying to build in our market going forward."
From that perspective, both of these markets could use that playoff buzz, both needing to build up their respective fan bases.
Lots on the line, indeed, this week for both franchises.
"It’s a time where you have to enjoy it and have fun with it; just enjoy the challenge that’s ahead of us," Benn said.
"It’s going to be a fun week," Doan echoed.
Well, for one team anyway.