GLENDALE, Ariz. — As hard as he tried, Mike Ribeiro just couldn’t contain it any longer.
Following the Phoenix Coyotes’ 4-2 victory over the Calgary Flames Tuesday night — their seventh consecutive game with at least one point — the subtle smile on his face grew wider and wider out from the shadow cast by the bill of his ashen gray and brick red hat.
It took 10 games, a few highs, a few lows and a couple of line changes in between, but the 13-year veteran’s grin said it all.
The adjustment hasn’t been easy, but he’s finally comfortable being a Phoenix Coyote.
After his latest one-man show — a performance that featured the game-winning tally in Phoenix’s two-goal victory — the noise surrounding the team’s big free agent signing has been all but muted.
There’s no more talk about whether he’s a good fit in the locker room, whether a four-year contract was befitting of someone his age, whether he could be the point machine the Coyotes have desperately been seeking since Dave Tippett arrived in the Valley before the 2009-10 campaign.
“We actually had to get him away from the stigma of ‘you’re the guy now’ to ‘we don’t win with just one guy, we win with everybody,'” Tippett said. “He didn’t have the responsibility of being kind of ‘The Guy,’ and I didn’t want him to have the responsibility of kind of being an individual. So, we did some things to make sure we looked like a team.”
In his first six games with the Coyotes, Ribeiro recorded just three assists and failed to score a goal on eight shot attempts. Sensing a change needed to be made, Tippett moved Ribeiro off the top line with Radim Vrbata and Martin Hanzal and put him alongside David Moss and a combination of Mikkel Boedker, Lauri Korpikoski or Rob Klinkhammer.
It was a small tweak in the formula, but needless to say Phoenix has been reaping the rewards ever since. Over the last four contests, Ribeiro has five goals, four of which have come in the third period.
“We have been playing together for a few games now, the same lines,” said Ribeiro, who extended his point streak to seven games in the win over Calgary. “We kind of know what we are supposed to do, and I guess we are more comfortable together.”
The chemistry, though, hasn’t just been forming on the ice.
Fitting in is never easy, regardless of whether it’s a young child moving to a new school or a veteran NHL center transitioning to the fourth different organization in a career that has spanned nearly a decade-and-a-half.
So as much as Ribeiro’s recent production stems from a budding on-ice familiarity with his new line mates, the Coyotes center also admitted that his improved play is likely a product of feeling a sense of ease in the locker room — something that had been lacking during the first few weeks of the season.
“I like to be relaxed, joke around with the guys and keep the room relaxed, not tight or stiff,” said Ribeiro. “It took me awhile to get comfortable with all the guys and for them to know me and I guess to like me. Now that we did that and I’m comfortable coming in every day with the boys, it’s fun to come in, work and have fun.”
His teammates couldn’t agree more.
“I think [Ribeiro] just brings another dimension to the offense,” Boedker said. “He’s just a real skilled guy. He does everything to perfection. When he’s really focused and he’s really on his game, he’s one of the top guys in the league. He’s one of those guys we rely on a lot. For me, it’s a fun experience to play with him.”
Defenseman Keith Yandle, who set up Ribeiro’s go-ahead goal in the third period Tuesday night, noted that it’s nice to finally be on the positive end of the 33-year-old’s offensive heroics.
“He’s a guy who is always going to find you if you’re open, and so you just have to kind of get there,” said Yandle. “He does a good job of getting open and showing you that he wants the puck. He is a fun guy to play with.”
Ten games doesn’t make or break a season. It doesn’t validate a multi-year deal or instantly win over a fan base. But for Ribeiro, it has more than served its purpose.
No longer burdened by the pressure of having to be ‘The Guy’ in Phoenix, Ribeiro finally has the look of a player at peace with being just another guy — one who can still make quite a difference for a team looking to get back to the postseason.
“The thing I like about him right now, he’s getting points, he’s getting some goals, but he thinks the game,” said Tippett. “He does the right things. There are things he is doing that make him a real smart, complete player. And he still does that in his own element.”
In other words, Mike Ribeiro is starting to play like Mike Ribeiro.