Originally posted on Fox Sports Arizona  |  Last updated 1/30/12
While pondering the Coyotes stretch run, it seemed appropriate that the iPod shuffled to Coldplays "Everythings Not Lost." Phoenix emerges from the 2012 All-Star break in 12th place in the Western Conference, seven points off last seasons pace and six spots behind its sixth-place standing at this time last year. The Coyotes are still without an owner, still without a top-line center and still looking for a legitimate home-ice advantage from their fans. But those three issues are nothing new, and the first is manageable. Despite a road-heavy schedule, the Coyotes are just three points behind Minnesota in the race for the eighth and final playoff spot, and their goal differential (minus-four) -- a good past predictor of whether teams make the playoffs -- is better than any of the five teams currently battling for that last spot in the West. With money to spend in his budget, general manager Don Maloney should be able to add some scoring punch up front, even if he finds it impossible to land that prized No. 1 center without mortgaging the future. Phoenix will play 18 of its final 32 games at Jobing.com Arena. Without the taxing road trips that have left the team exhausted when it reaches home ice, the Coyotes should be able to establish a little more home dominance. Finally, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman sparked renewed hope when he revealed at the All-Star Game that there is a third party now interested in purchasing the Coyotes. Sure, weve heard such talk before, but its better than a gloomy forecast, no? As coach Dave Tippett said following the teams sloppy win over Ottawa in the last game before the break, there is plenty of work to be done. Here are our top three areas in which the Coyotes must continue to excel along with three things they must do better if they are to secure a third consecutive postseason berth. KEEP IT UP Goalie Mike Smiths play: The offseason free-agent signing suffered a lull near the end of 2011, but hes resumed his stellar play of late and now sits 10th in the NHL in save percentage (.922) with a 2.44 goals-against average. Smith has allowed 23 goals in his last 10 games (six in one game) while stopping 291 of 314 shots (92.7 percent). By the way, Ilya Bryzgalovs numbers last season at the break looked like this: 2.64 goals-against average, .916 save percentage. We like to say we told you so, so we just did. Penalty-killing prowess: Like Smith, the PK suffered a lull, but its now back to being one of the NHLs elite units. The Phoenix penalty kill ranks ninth in the league at 84.2 percent. Special teams are magnified in the playoffs, and without a strong power play, the Coyotes have to get one half of the equation right. Radim Vrbatas breakout season: Have we mentioned that the Coyotes dont have much scoring punch? They are on pace to have just three 20-goal scorers, pending any trade-deadline deals. Of course, they only had one last season, but they had eight with 16 or more. That wont happen this season. Its a lot of pressure to place on Vrbata, and other teams will probably be clamping down on him, but career numbers sure would help the cause. STEP IT UP The power play: Following an 0-for-5 performance on the power play on Jan. 12 in Phoenix, Detroit coach Mike Babcock remarked how awful the Red Wings power play had been over the past month. Nothings happening, Babcock growled. The Wings' version of nothing still looked more threatening than the Coyotes' version. Phoenix is 29th out of 30 teams, converting at a 12.8 percent clip with the man advantage. Its easy to say the Coyotes have to be better -- that they have to get more pucks to the net and move the puck faster -- but without a play-making center or an immoveable force to park in the slot, its hard to imagine this unit improving much. If Maloney cant get that No. 1 center hes long coveted, he might look at finding a piece to help this struggling unit. Home-ice play: Phoenix is 10-9-4 at Jobing.com Arena. Last season, the Coyotes were 10-9-5 at the break. Scary, huh? The Coyotes went 11-4-2 in their last 17 games at home last season. A similar feat this season should be sufficient for a playoff spot. Be better in tight games: The perception has been that the Coyotes did a better job last season of getting to overtime and at least earning a point than they are doing this year. Thats not really the case. Phoenix lost a league-high 13 games in overtime or a shootout last season. With eight OT or SO losses through 50 games, theyre on pace to achieve that number again. They also won seven games in overtime or shootout last year. This year, they have three such wins, so theyll likely fall a point or two short of last seasons pace. Where the Coyotes have really struggled is in one-goal games. They had lost 10 straight before beating Ottawa just before the break and are 8-17 in one-goal games this season. Last season, they were 16-16 in such games. The good news? Phoenix was 9-14 in one-goal games before the All-Star break last season, then went 7-2 down the stretch. Just like last seasons late home-ice push, a similar streak in one-goal games could get the Coyotes to the postseason.
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