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Tuesday, March 23rd (All times eastern)

Phoenix Coyotes (46-22-5) at Chicago Blackhawks (45-19-7), 8:30 p.m.

(Sports Network) - Few would have thought before the season that a March game between the Coyotes and Blackhawks would have much impact on the standings.

Yet Phoenix and Chicago will battle for first place in the Western Conference -- and possibly the opportunity to clinch a playoff spot -- this evening at the United Center, where the Coyotes will also be trying to claim victory for a franchise-record 10th time in a row.

Coming off a 2008-09 season in which they halted a five-season playoff absence and made it all the way to the Western Conference finals, few are surprised that the Blackhawks are in contention for the conference's top seed while also holding an eight-point lead for first place in the Central Division.

The same can't be said for the Coyotes, who haven't made the playoffs since 2002 and weren't expected to make much noise in a loaded Pacific Division this year. However, Phoenix posted a 3-2 shootout win over Dallas on Sunday to move one point ahead of San Jose for the top spot in the division and into a tie with Chicago for the most points in the West with 97. Phoenix, though, has played two more games than the 'Hawks.

Not only will tonight's game decide who will take over sole possession of the West's top spot, but the winner could also claim a postseason berth if ninth- place Calgary losses in regulation this evening to Anaheim. The Flames have 81 points with 10 games to play including tonight's test.

The Coyotes' most recent win was their ninth in a row, matching the previous franchise mark set by the Winnipeg Jets from March 8-27, 1985, while Phoenix also set a club record for the most points in a single season.

Radim Vrbata and Petr Prucha both scored on the power play versus the Stars before Vrbata and Adrian Aucoin scored in the Coyotes' fifth shootout victory of their current win streak.

"We've just been very persistent," said Aucoin, who is a perfect 5-for-5 in shootouts this season. "We've been down by goals in a few of the games [during the win streak]. We just keep coming. Obviously, goaltending has been our rock all year."

Jason LaBarbera gave regular starter Ilya Bryzgalov a rest and stopped 30 shots for Phoenix, which has won five in a row on the road and eight straight shootouts and is 12-4 in such situations this year.

One of those shootout wins for the Coyotes came on Saturday versus the Blackhawks in Chicago's most recent contest. Vrbata had the lone goal in the deciding segment, while Bryzgalov made 34 saves before stopping Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp in the shootout.

Kane had a goal and an assist, while Sharp, Andrew Ladd and Troy Brouwer each lit the lamp for the Blackhawks, who blew a pair of two-goal leads and have dropped four of their last five (1-2-2). Antti Niemi made 31 stops in the loss as Chicago fell to 29-1-3 when leading after two periods.

"It's defensive zone coverage, we've got to be better," said Chicago head coach Joel Quenneville. "I think that's why you win. You win in this league by playing defense. We know we're going to score goals, we know we can play offensively."

Chicago will get a boost on the blueline with the expected return of Brent Seabrook, who has missed the last two games with a head injury suffered on a hit by Anaheim's James Wisniewski last Wednesday. Wisniewski received an eight-game suspension for the high hit.

The Coyotes have won all three of their meetings with the Blackhawks this year, two by way of a shootout. Aucoin had the deciding tally and LaBarbera made 28 saves in a 2-1 shootout win at Chicago on Feb. 5, snapping Phoenix's four-game slide at the United Center.

The Phoenix franchise has never before swept its season series with Chicago.

03/23 10:45:24 ET


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