Coyotes renew acquaintances with Canucks

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Vancouver Canucks and Arizona Coyotes didn't see each other for nearly five months to start the NHL season. Suddenly, they're seeing each other more than many best friends do.

The two Pacific Division teams -- each coming off 5-2 losses -- will meet Sunday night at Gila River Arena for the second time in five days and the third time in two weeks.

There is one more meeting between the Western Conference's two worst teams April 5, just to make sure this rivalry doesn't lose its edge before the season ends.

The Coyotes that the Canucks are seeing with great regularity these days aren't the Coyotes most of the NHL saw this season. Vancouver's 69 points are six ahead of Arizona.

The Coyotes were 3-0-1 in their previous four and 9-2-2 in their previous 13, including a 2-1 win over the Canucks on Wednesday before losing at the Colorado Avalanche 5-2 on Saturday.

Is a much better record than the Coyotes (21-35-11) put up during the first half of the season, when they started out 0-10-1 and were 9-27-5 following a 5-2 loss to the Anaheim Ducks on New Year's Eve. They are 12-8-6 since.

"I just feel like right now that our group is really focused in our game and talking about what we can do and our systems and how we play," general manager John Chayka told KMVP-FM in Phoenix. "We know that if we go out and execute the way we want to play, that we're a lot to handle and we're a tough team to beat. This is my third year here and I certainly haven't felt that way until now. It's a big kind of mindset shift."

The Coyotes are hoping that the Colorado loss, in a game swung by a too many men on the ice penalty against them, will not derail their late-season momentum -- the kind the Canucks (25-34-9) wish they had.

"We don't want to play games for fun," said Coyotes right wing Richard Panik, who teamed with Christian Dvorak to score Arizona's goals Saturday. "We want to compete."

Out of playoff contention, like the Coyotes are, the Canucks have dropped 13 of 17 and are 3-4-3 in their last 10 following a 5-2 loss to the Minnesota Wild on Friday night.

One of their few recent wins was a 3-1 decision at Arizona on Feb. 25.

"We can't find any excuses," Vancouver goaltender Anders Nilsson said following the loss Friday. "Everyone needs to look at themselves in the mirror and think about what everyone can bring to the table. For me, it's simple. I need to find one or two more saves (per game)."

Nilsson is 1-10-2 since Nov. 30 and was filling in Friday for starter Jacob Markstrom, who sat out with an undisclosed illness.

It's possible Markstrom (18-22-6, 2.78 goals-against average) and Coyotes starter Antti Raanta (15-15-6, 2.43) will be back in net Sunday.

Raanta has missed three games with a lower body injury.

The newly acquired Darcy Kuemper, formerly with the Los Angeles Kings, filled in for Raanta during those three games and gained his first victory with the Coyotes in Vancouver, stopping 16 of 17 shots.

Rookie center Clayton Keller scored Arizona's first goal in the last meeting with Vancouver and center Derek Stepan got the game-winner in the third period. However, Stepan and forward Laurent Dauphin left the ice in the third period in Colorado with apparent injuries, and their status for Sunday is uncertain.

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