The Phoenix Coyotes have raised plenty an eyebrow during the 2008-09 season thus far.
Beyond all the talk of financial collapse, $30 million in losses, horrible lease agreements and revenue sharing woes, the team on the ice has exceeded expectations thus far.
Despite being maddeningly inconsistent between games and even sometimes between periods within games, the Desert Dogs still find themselves in 7th place in the Western Conference and only two points behind the Anaheim Ducks for 2nd place in the Pacific Division behind the mighty San Jose Sharks.
This stretch, however, will be the one that determines whether Phoenix makes the playoffs this season.
We'll define this crucial stretch of games as going from tonight, when the 'Yotes travel to Vancouver to take on the Canucks, until February 7, when they host the Carolina Hurricanes.
During this period of about 2 1/2 weeks, the Coyotes will play only three of their 10 games against what I consider elite opponents: one game vs. Detroit in Glendale and two road games at San Jose and a repeat matchup with the Red Wings. Outside of that, the Coyotes take on the Canucks, Calgary, Edmonton and Nashville on the road and Anaheim, Buffalo and Carolina at home.
On the flip side, the Ducks, who are only 9-8-2 away from Honda Center, play 9 of their next 11 on the road. A five-game roadie starts tomorrow at defending East champion Pittsburgh and then continues to Minnesota, the Rangers and Islanders and then here to Phoenix. Home games against high-flying Chicago and the Sabres are interspersed with trips to Colorado, Minnesota again, Nashville and Calgary.
The 'Yotes have played the Red Wings and Sharks very tough so far this season and, at least in their home matchups, should be able to pull out victories. Out of this 10 game stretch, the Coyotes should be able to pull out at least 12 points, which will put them at 59 going into the middle of February.
The road weary Ducks, who were physically manhandled at home by Detroit last night, face stiff tests pretty much every night until February 7 (save their games against the Islanders and Colorado...hapless as hapless can be).
If the Ducks slip in any way in this stretch and put together a losing streak, the Coyotes need to take advantage and win their games. Moving up to 2nd place in the Pacific now will vault them into a position in which as long as they play .500 hockey down the stretch, they'll be in the playoff race until the very end.