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Lighting the Lamp: Howling at nothing

You might recognize the "Lighting the Lamp" feature from the Game Time paper. Rick Ackerman has been nice enough to send over his column for the website. "Lighting the Lamp" will be featured every home game day.

Scoreboard at Gila River Arena after a Blues game last season in Glendale against the Coyotes
Rick Ackerman

Lighting the Lamp With Rick Ackerman

And the beat goes on. The St. Louis Blues played a terrific game against the Calgary Flames Saturday night but came up short, losing a tough, exciting back-and-forth affair, 3-2, with two and a half seconds left in overtime. The victory enabled the Flames, currently holding the first wild-card slot, to move within three points of both third-place Edmonton and second-place San Jose (tied with 91 points) in the Pacific Division (not including the late game in Anaheim last night, before which the Ducks also had 91 points). Nashville’s victory over San Jose Saturday enabled the Predators to move one point ahead of the Blues and recapture third-place in the Central. The Blues dropped to the second wild-card slot, eighth in the West, trailing seventh-place Calgary by two points.

Also Saturday, the Los Angeles Kings dropped a crucial home game to the New York Rangers, 3-0, leaving them with 77 points, nine behind St. Louis. With only eight games left in the regular season, it is highly improbable that the Kings can catch the Blues, the Predators or the Flames.

The visiting Arizona Coyotes make their first and only visit to St. Louis tonight. The Coyotes are 13th in the Western Conference, 20 points ahead of cellar-dwelling Colorado. Arizona is guaranteed a top-five draft choice in this year’s Entry Draft and will most likely “earn” the first or second pick depending on who wins the draft lottery. The Coyotes have also acquired the Minnesota Wild’s first-round choice in a deadline-day trade for Martin Hanzal and Ryan White.

These draft choices will add to a bevy of good, young prospects in the Coyotes’ system, including centers Clayton Keller, a St. Louis native, and Dylan Strome, wingers Christian Fischer and Nick Merkley and forward Ryan MacInnis, son of Blues’ vice president of hockey operations, Al.

The Phoenix Coyotes played their first NHL game in 1996 when the franchise was relocated from Winnipeg. Despite strong fan support, several attempts to keep the team in Canada fell through, and a couple of Phoenix-area businessmen formed a consortium to buy the team and play at the America West Arena (now Talking Stick Resort Arena, also home of the NBA’s Suns) in downtown Phoenix. Bolstered by stars Jeremy Roenick, Keith Tkachuk, Rick Tocchet, Mike Gartner, a young Shane Doan and goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, the club posted six consecutive .500 or better seasons, qualifying for the playoffs in every year but one.

It was in 1999 that St. Louis and Phoenix met in a memorable first-round series that went seven games, with Pierre Turgeon scoring the series-winning goal at 17:59 of overtime. Goaltender Grant Fuhr made 35 saves in the 1-0 Blues’ victory, out-dueling the Coyotes’ Khabibulin, who stopped 33 of 34 shots. Five of the seven games were decided by one goal, with three going to overtime.

The Coyotes moved to the Glendale Arena (now the Gila River Arena) late in 2003 due to myriad problems with the downtown arena that made it unsuitable for hockey. At the same time, the team changed its logo and uniforms. Unfortunately, the new-look Coyotes didn’t qualify for the playoffs for the next seven years (one of which was the lockout season) and by late 2008, dwindling attendance and financial losses sent the franchise into bankruptcy, with the NHL ending up paying the club’s bills. Even the addition of Brett Hull on the ice (in 2005 for five games) and Wayne Gretzky as coach and in the front office (2005-09) could not help the situation.

From May to September 2009, hearings were held in Phoenix bankruptcy court to determine the fate of the franchise. The NHL ended up buying the team. Several deals with three or four different financial groups across the U.S. and Canada fell apart over a four-year period. Finally, in 2013, after threats that the club would be relocated to Seattle, the messy situation was settled when the Glendale City Council voted 4-3 to approve a 15-year lease agreement with Renaissance Sports and Entertainment, which purchased the franchise from the NHL for $225 million. As part of the deal, RSE can move the team after five years if it accrues $50 million in losses. In January 2014, the new owners announced the club would be called the Arizona Coyotes.

The Coyotes have not made the playoffs since 2012 when they went to the Conference Finals, losing to the Kings in five games. And, of course, they will not qualify this season, either.

St. Louis and Phoenix/Arizona have made only five trades in 20 or so years, the first one of the best in the Blues’ favor. Keith Tkachuk joined the Blues in March 2001 while Michal Handzus, Ladislav Nagy, a first-round pick (Ben Eager) and Jeff Taffe became Coyotes. Two years later, Lee Stempniak was traded to the Note in exchange forTyson Nash. In March 2004, well-traveled center Mike Sillinger went from St. Louis to Phoenix for goaltender Brent Johnson. A week later, defenseman Tom Koivisto was traded to the Coyotes in exchange for winger Brian Savage. And finally, in March 2015, the Blues acquired defenseman Zbynek Michalek and a conditional third-round draft pick for amateur center Maxim Letunov. Michalek played 15 undistinguished games with the Note before re-signing with Arizona the following summer. The conditional draft pick went to Edmonton in the Magnus Paajarvi deal in 2013. Letunov, who just completed his sophomore year at the University of Connecticut, was traded by Arizona to San Jose in June 2016.

The Blues need the two points tonight more than Arizona, yet undoubtedly the Coyotes would love to be spoilers and will play to win.