(AP) — If the Phoenix Coyotes eventually fall short of reaching the playoffs or winning their first division title, one reason will be their performances against the league-worst Columbus Blue Jackets.
Phoenix seeks to move back into a tie for the Pacific Division lead Tuesday night, but to do that they’ll have to beat the suddenly-surging Blue Jackets for the first time this season.
The Coyotes (39-27-13) are currently second in the log-jammed Pacific with 91 points, two behind first-place Los Angeles, one in front of San Jose and two ahead of Dallas. They’re also seventh in the Western Conference playoff race, jockeying for the final two spots with the Sharks, Stars, and Colorado (88 points).
Phoenix, San Jose and Dallas all have three games left, and are playing Tuesday while the Kings and Avalanche sit idle with two contests remaining.
The Coyotes would seem to be in line to benefit from facing the Blue Jackets (27-45-7). However, they’ve lost all three meetings with Columbus this season, including a 5-2 home defeat March 3 and a 3-2 loss in Columbus three days later.
The Blue Jackets also enter this meeting riding a three-game winning streak which has come against playoff contenders Detroit, Florida and St. Louis. They beat the Central Division champion Blues 5-2 on Saturday behind 34 saves from rookie Allen York, who has started all three games of the winning streak while posting a 1.678 goals-against average.
“It’s huge for our confidence,” said the 22-year-old York. “We showed that we’re not the team that everyone thinks we are. We’re a very dangerous team.”
The Coyotes are getting strong goaltending of their own from Mike Smith, who has made 82 total saves in consecutive shutouts. Forty-four of those stops came during Saturday’s 4-0 victory over Anaheim.
“It speaks very well for his maturity in the game,” coach Dave Tippett said. “He’s a player who wants to be in those critical situations.”
Smith, who is 11-2-1 with a 1.68 GAA and four shutouts in 14 home games, has seven shutouts overall in 2011-12 – a career high and one shy of his total from the previous four seasons combined.
Smith has a 4.30 GAA in his last four games versus the Blue Jackets, losing three of them and getting pulled March 6 after allowing two goals in the opening 3:54.
Forwards Radim Vrbata and Ray Whitney are also coming up big for Phoenix.
Vrbata, the team leader with 33 goals, has three goals and one assist over his last two games after failing to score a goal in the previous 12 contests including the two March losses to Columbus.
Whitney has a team-high 75 points, including four in the last two games. The left wing scored a goal in the home loss to the Blue Jackets one month ago.
Rick Nash is giving Columbus some scoring punch to support York’s impressive play, with two goals and six assists during a five-game point streak. The captain has 10 goals and nine assists in 15 career visits to Phoenix, including two goals and one assist in the March 6 meeting.