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Off the Ice: Pressure on for Coyotes in playoff hunt ahead of Olympic break

The National Hockey League is taking a break soon for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

The Phoenix Coyotes are three points out of the playoffs. That’s not good. But it’s not the end of the world.

Phoenix is part of one of the toughest Western Conference races in recent memory. Five other teams are within five points of the Coyotes (two ahead, three trailing). Going into the Olympic break out of the postseason doesn’t necessarily mean the end of their playoff hopes, but it guarantees a tough road after the closing ceremonies.

Before the break, the Coyotes will face three teams in the Western Conference and two from the Eastern. Two of those games, against Dallas, are effectively worth four points each, as the Stars closely trail the Desert Dogs.

The Coyotes did themselves a favor on Tuesday when they took down the rival Los Angeles Kings, but remain three points out of the final playoff spot.

“We have room to improve but we were good enough to win,” captain Shane Doan said after Tuesday’s victory.

They should be able to pick up two more against Buffalo on Thursday, but could easily drop Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh, the top team in the Eastern Conference, but the captain doesn’t see that as an option.

“We have to (win),” Doan said. “We put ourselves to being average in the league and we have to be better than average if we want to make the playoffs.”

Better than average is right. The Coyotes will play three games in four days after their date with Pittsburgh, including a back-to-back with the Blackhawks at home and the Stars on the road just prior to the break.

After the break, things aren’t going to get easier. I really only see three clear wins (sorry, Florida and Edmonton) and the rest could go either way given the Coyotes’ inconsistency this season, though the win against the Kings showed signs of promise.

Thirteen of the team’s final 29 games are against Western Conference opponents, meaning the Coyotes will have some chances to get free points while chipping away at conference teams. It’s not an ideal setup, but it allows for a few slip-ups without risking too much conference positioning, at least in theory.

But why wait? Going into the break in a playoff spot is possible, though Phoenix will need some help. They are chasing Minnesota and Vancouver at the moment. The Wild have four games before the break, but all are tough matchups, while the Canucks have six, also against some tricky teams. Either could slip up, leaving the door open for the Coyotes, who have the most favorable schedule of the three.

As I said, the Coyotes’ season is certainly far from over. They are a string of wins away from a decent spot in the postseason and have the ability to put a good run together. But weird things happen in the NHL (the return of Ilya Bryzgalov, anyone?) and Phoenix can’t push their luck too far, or they run the risk of their playoff push falling short.

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