After a brief two-game road trip to Nashville and Minnesota, the Phoenix Coyotes will return to friendly Jobing.com Arena to host the Florida Panthers. The Coyotes return home after splitting that two game road trip to the Midwest. They dropped the first to the Nashville Predators, despite controlling the game at full strength.
In the end, the Coyotes spent too much time in the sin bin, and the Preds' two power play goals were too much to overcome, with the Yotes on the short end of a 3-0 game.
While Wednesday night looked like it was going to be a similar issue, Phoenix rebounded from some early mistakes, and staved off a late rally from the Minnesota Wild, to salvage their road swing. Similar to their bout with Nashville, the Coyotes dominated the five-on-five play, but didn't have a penalty kill after the first period, escaping Minnesota with a 4-2 win.
While the Panthers remain one of the National Hockey League's least supported teams, many remember the contest between these two clubs last season. Trailing the Panthers 3-0, the Coyotes mounted a rally, including a fluke goal from Radim Vrbata that bounced from behind the blue line over the glove of goaltender Tomas Vokoun, to tie it and force a shootout. As they did so many times last season in the shootouts, the Coyotes ended up winning the game, with all three regulation goals coming in the third period.
The Panthers come in with just 20 points in 24 games, 18 behind the conference leading Washington Capitals. While former Blackhawks general manager Dale Tallon has given this team hope, it's clear that it's going to be a while before we see Florida hanging with the league's best. They've won just three times in their last 10 contests.
However, that doesn't mean the Coyotes should take this squad from the Sunshine State lightly. The Panthers have at least put up a decent fight in the majority of their losses, and are backed by solid goaltending in Vokoun. The veteran goaltender has posted solid numbers overall this season, including a .918 save percentage, but has really struggled in his last few starts, giving up seven in his last two combined. Could we see backup Scott Clemmensen? Unlikely.
Ilya Bryzgalov should be back between the pipes for the Coyotes, after Jason LaBarbera saw his first start since November 10th on Wednesday in Minnesota. Bryz was riding an impressive hot streak before being stopped in his tracks against the Anaheim Ducks, when he surrendered six goals. His start against Nashville on Tuesday wasn't terrible, but the Coyotes couldn't muster any offense for him. He should be rested and ready for Florida on Saturday.
The key to the game for the Coyotes is to stay out of the box. While this should be the key for any game, the Panthers, similar to the Preds, are a struggling team on offense, but if given a good amount of power play chances, they're going to make you pay.
A simple formula for a victory, to be sure. With the Coyotes' prowess on offense, the recent struggles of the Panthers should be easy to exploit, but with this Phoenix team having a recent penchant for taking bad penalties, Saturday could end up being another very interesting meeting between these clubs.