The Phoenix Coyotes eliminated the Nashville Predators on their way to the Western Conference finals last season, but it's starting to look like merely qualifying for the postseason this spring might be a stretch.
The Coyotes attempt to avoid their longest losing streak in 19 years Thursday night while the Predators look to continue damaging Phoenix's playoff chances by sweeping this four-game homestand.
The Coyotes (13-15-5) ousted the Predators (14-13-6) in five games during the second round of the playoffs last year before falling in the conference finals, but even having a chance to return to the NHL's postseason tournament is looking dicey. Phoenix is tied with Edmonton for 12th in the West, five points back of San Jose and St. Louis for the final two playoff positions.
The Coyotes' chances have been hurt by an 0-5-2 skid during which they've totaled eight goals. They haven't endured a longer slide since tying a franchise record with 10 straight losses as the Winnipeg Jets from Feb. 6-25, 1994.
The latest defeat may have been the most difficult to take. Phoenix rallied from two goals down to take a 3-2 lead Wednesday at Minnesota, but gave up the tying goal with 54.3 seconds to go in regulation before falling 4-3 in overtime.
"We battled back for a point, but the reality is in our situation we need more than one point. ... When you continue to find ways to give points away it's very frustrating," coach Dave Tippett said.
Things have been made more difficult with a head injury to goaltender Mike Smith, one of the catalysts behind last year's playoff run. He was placed on injured reserve Tuesday, retroactive to March 21, and there's no timetable for his return.
That could mean a third consecutive start for Jason LaBarbera, who is 0-4-1 with a 3.22 goals-against average in five starts this season. He had 33 saves Wednesday.
"It's about a big of a kick to the nuts as you're going to get. I felt like we were going to win that game," LaBarbera said.
The veteran backup has won his last three visits to Nashville behind a 1.67 GAA, but Chad Johnson might not be a bad option should Tippett decide to give LaBarbera a rest. He's made only two starts this season, but stopped 21 shots in a 4-0 win over the Coyotes on Jan. 28
Whichever goaltender gets the call will have to be sharp when Martin Erat and Mike Fisher are on the ice. Erat, who leads the Predators with 20 points, has a goal and six assists during Nashville's three straight home wins - including two assists in Monday's 3-2 victory over Edmonton.
It seems he may be in for another productive performance since he has five assists over the past three regular-season home meetings with Phoenix, including two in a 3-0 victory Feb. 14.
Fisher scored on one of those assists by Erat, and he has 14 points in 14 career regular-season matchups. He has five goals and three assists during a seven-game point streak.
Fisher hasn't put together a longer streak since a career-high nine-game run from Dec. 23, 2007-Jan. 12, 2008, with Ottawa.
Including the final two meetings in Nashville during the playoff series, Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne is 2-1-0 with a 0.34 GAA in his last three home starts against Phoenix.
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