March 10 2010 09:46AM
The Last Stop.
Their suitcases are full of dirty clothes. They are sick of airports and hotel rooms. They miss their families. But after tonight, that all changes.
The Vancouver Canucks play the final installment in their epic, record-long, 14-game road trip as they travel to Phoenix to face the Coyotes.
Not only do the Canucks play on back-to-back nights, but they play the season's two most surprising teams on back-to-back nights.
Last night's improbable comeback victory saw the Canucks overcome the Colorado Avalanche, a team who many expected to finish in the bottom three teams this year, but instead are fighting for a division crown. Tonight, the Canucks hope the end result is same, albeit in different circumstances, as they face the equally surprising Coyotes. Mired in dire financials straits, owned by the league itself, and faced with playing in front of WHL-sized home crowds on most games, the Phoenix Coyotes are playing well despite their considerable obstances. In fact, they're playing very well.
You can credit the majority of their success to a change behind the bench. Dave Tippett, certainly a strong contender for the Jack Adams trophy this year, has drastically changed the mentality of this young and talented team to play defense first. The strategy has worked. With 16 games left, the Coyotes sit in a playoff spot, where they've been all year. This is testament to the entire team buying into Tippett's system and playing it to a tee.
Nobody can accuse the Coyotes of scoring too many goals, but they are sure doing a great job of keeping the puck out of their own net. They are New Jersey West. They are the Canucks from three years ago. The Coyotes appear quite content to win every game 1-0 or 2-1. The stats bare this out. The Coyotes are a top 5 team in GA/game, Home PK, and GA in the first period, where they rank first. While playing an exciting brand of hockey is not in the cards, getting into the playoffs sure is. We'll almost certainly see Phoenix in the post-season for the first time since 2002, thanks to Tippett and his team-defense-first system.
Looking at where this game will be won or lost, I looked at each team by their per-period play. The Coyotes' +/- in first period goals is +4, while the Canucks is a -6. So while the Canucks certainly score their share of goals in the first frame, they are giving up more - especially in the last four games of this road trip. The bigger story is in the third period. The Coyotes are a -3 in GF/GA in the third period, and rank 20th and 17th respectively. The Canucks, however, are +39 in GF/GA and ranked 2nd in both categories.
Canucks fans, you have another nailbiter on the horizon tonight. Late game heroics appear to be on order for the Canucks. Let's just hope Luongo can get his game going sooner rather than later. It would save all of us some stress.