Wayne Gretzky knows a thing or two about the playoffs from winning four Stanley Cup titles and becoming the NHL's most prolific postseason scorer. But like almost half his team, he's learning on the fly as he tries to coach the Phoenix Coyotes to their first playoff appearance since 2002.
The Coyotes face another crucial game in the Western Conference race Friday night when they host the Colorado Avalanche at Jobing.com Arena.
As a player, Gretzky had no peer after compiling 122 goals and 260 assists in 208 lifetime playoff games. By comparison, his young Coyotes (31-26-4) have only eight skaters with postseason experience that have totaled 32 goals and 48 assists in 198 games.
Only one of those players - Shane Doan - was with the team when the Coyotes last made the playoffs in 2002, when they were quickly shown the exit in a five-game series against the San Jose Sharks in the first round.
This season, Phoenix is in the thick of the playoff race, entering Friday tied with Colorado (30-25-6) for ninth in the West, four points behind Vancouver and Calgary. The Coyotes, though, showed none of the poise their coach displayed as a player in a 4-1 loss Tuesday to the Flames that snapped a three-game winning streak.
"They played like this was a playoff game and we played like it was a September exhibition game," said Gretzky, whose team was outshot 14-8 and allowed two goals in the third period. "They beat us to every loose puck. They took hits to make plays and we showed no grit. We only had a handful of players who showed up."
Gretzky, though, can be optimistic heading into this game. The Coyotes have won all three meetings this season with the Avalanche, which arrives in Phoenix trying to snap a five-game overall losing streak - its worst skid in nearly a decade.
Colorado, continuing to struggle offensively without injured centers Joe Sakic and Paul Stastny, was able to salvage a point in the opener of its five-game road trip, a 3-2 shootout loss to Anaheim on Wednesday. Jeff Finger and Andrew Brunette scored second-period goals for the Avalanche, but Wojtek Wolski, Marek Svatos and Milan Hejduk each failed to beat Jean-Sebastien Giguere in the shootout.
Despite the result, the Avalanche felt it had found the type of play needed to avoid its first six-game losing streak since March 30-April 11, 1998.
"We worked like dogs out there and battled," head coach Joel Quenneville said. "I think we battled a lot better than we showed in the last couple games."
One player the Avalanche will have to contain is Radim Vrbata, who has tormented his former team in the season series. Vrbata has five goals, an assist and also converted a shootout attempt in Phoenix's three wins over the Avalanche, and scored with 1:37 left in overtime in the most recent win, a 4-3 victory Feb. 4.
Phoenix, which is 5-for-14 on the power play against Colorado, has not swept a season series between the teams since 1990-91, when the Coyotes franchise was still in Winnipeg, and the Avalanche were located in Quebec.