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Duhatschek: Stumbling and fumbling toward the playoffs in the wild West

In the NHL's wild Western Conference, where all four Canadian teams will miss the playoffs for the first time ever, there'll still be some minor jockeying for position heading into the final week of the regular season.

But there's really only one battle of note. It's for the second wild-card spot, between the Dallas Stars and the Phoenix Coyotes – two teams that have sputtered down the stretch. Dallas went on the road last week and managed a win over the Tampa Bay Lighting. But the Stars lost to two non-playoff teams on that trip, first to the Carolina Hurricanes and then, more ominously, the Florida Panthers. Had Dallas beat the lowly Panthers, it would have all but locked up that final playoff spot.

Both teams are in action Tuesday: Phoenix is travelling to Columbus to play the Blue Jackets, and Dallas starts a three-game homestand against Nashville. The Predators are technically still alive in the playoff race after unexpectedly defeating two of the West's big boys, the Anaheim Ducks and the San Jose Sharks, on a California road trip last week.

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That's been the state of the West for a week or so: A lot of teams with a lot on the line, stumbling and fumbling their way to the finish line after being mostly great all season long.

Every team mouths the same mantra ("You want to be playing well down the stretch to carry that momentum into the playoffs"). The reality is that, except for the Matt Duchene-less Colorado Avalanche, 6-0-1 in the past seven games, no one is exactly lighting it up.

In Phoenix, for example, the off-season decision to sign Mike Ribeiro as a free agent was supposed to mitigate that long-standing organizational woe – a punchless offence. But Ribeiro has been so ineffective that he was a healthy scratch for two games recently. Except for Mikkel Boedker, who is finally showing some of the promise that made him a sixth-overall pick back in the Wayne Gretzky days, the Coyotes offence has stalled, scoring just four goals in their past four games, all losses.

Martin Hanzal, injured Friday against the Edmonton Oilers, might be ready to play this week and the Coyotes need him for his size and physical presence – though he has gone 12 games without a goal. But then it's been 10 games since Ribeiro scored, eight for Radim Vrbata, seven for Shane Doan and five for Antoine Vermette.

The Coyotes have been muddling along with backup Thomas Greiss in net, after Mike Smith was injured last month. Smith is skating again and listed as day-to-day, but he won't play until he gives the team the green light .

For the Stars or Coyotes, the reward for making the playoffs is likely a first-round date with St. Louis. The Blues have been a powerhouse for most of the season, but they are suddenly dealing with scoring issues of their own, with both Alex Steen and Vladimir Tarasenko out with injuries. St. Louis has lost two games in a row, is 5-5 in the past 10 and has lost the lead in the Presidents' Trophy race to the Boston Bruins.

"It's one of those things in the NHL – you can't get too high and you can't get too low," explained Coyotes defenceman Keith Yandle Sunday before learning of the Dallas implosion against Florida, which revived Phoenix's chances.

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The Coyotes had the weekend off, so on Sunday, the coaching staff scheduled a rare full-out practice before hitting the road, something Yandle told reporters would be useful in working the bugs out of their game.

"We don't have the luxury of some other teams, like Chicago, who just go out and play skilled and play well and they play hard obviously too," Yandle said. "We have to go over the little things to fine-tune our game."

Both teams know the value of that last playoff spot. Two seasons ago, the eighth seed in the West, the Los Angeles Kings, won the Stanley Cup. And if the current powerhouses are suddenly dealing with their own issues, that could create another muddled, impossible to predict postseason. What fun that's going to be.

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More

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