GLENDALE, Ariz. — On an emotionally-charged night that featured multiple pregame ceremonies, a stirring rendition of the national anthem and a brief intermission concert by Valley resident Alice Cooper, the Phoenix Coyotes managed to focus their collective attention on the task at hand: reclaiming the eighth spot in the Western Conference before a 16-day Olympic break.
Playing in front a record 17,575 fans at Jobing.com Arena, Phoenix fed off the electric energy, especially goaltender Mike Smith. Smith, who will be making his first Winter Games appearance next week with Team Canada, doubled as impenetrable wall Friday, stopping all 30 shots he faced against the Chicago Blackhawks, as the Coyotes downed the defending Stanley Cup Champions by a final of 2-0.
“It’s the time in the season right now where it’s go time,” said Smith, who became the first netminder to blank Chicago since Feb. 2012. “You need to bring your A-game when you play against a team like that. It’s a great opportunity to rise to the occasion, and it was an excited atmosphere tonight.”
For Smith, Friday’s performance marked his second shutout of the season and third career against the Blackhawks.
“I wanted to get my game together first and foremost for this team and this organization,” said Smith. “Making the playoffs is obviously the No. 1 goal and winning the Stanley Cup and to do that you have to have great goaltending. I put a lot of pressure on myself this season to be really good. But I’ve worked the last few games to be more calm in there.”
While Smith was dominant between the pipes, a thorough special teams effort — two power play goals and a perfect night on the penalty — and constant physicality from end line to end line paid dividends in the win, as well.
With the win, Phoenix heads to sleep in control of the second Wild Card spot for the first time since Jan. 9.
Forced to sit on the other side of the ice as his five Coyotes’ teammates were honored before the game in an Olympic sendoff of sorts, Keith Yandle, who was snubbed by Team USA back in January, made sure to make his presence felt early in Friday’s tilt.
Seven seconds into Phoenix’s first power play of the evening, Yandle took a pass from Mikkel Boedker above the right circle and ripped a slapper through the wickets of Chicago netminder Corey Crawford.
“The importance of the game for us and finishing on a strong note at the break is big for us,” Yandle said. “I thought we did a good job of handling it and playing well.”
On Yandle’s seventh goal of the season, center Antoine Vermette was credited with the second assist. With the helper, Vermette extended his career-high points streak to nine games. The streak is also the longest active one in the league.
It might have gone unnoticed, but Radim Vrbata’s effort on the forecheck prevented Jonathan Toews from creating a credible scoring chance following a nifty wraparound around Mike Smith’s net on the Blackhawks’ first power play of the night. The puck was eventually cleared out of the zone, pushing Chicago out of the offensive zone at a critical juncture in its man advantage.
The 11-year veteran was rewarded, however, during the Coyotes’ power play later in the period, as Mike Ribeiro set him up for a perfect shot in the slot. Vrbata employed a subtle hesitation move before putting the puck through Crawford’s five-hole.
“It’s always important (to look for more goals), because a one-goal lead is nothing,” Vrbata said. “It was good for us that we took advantage of the 5-on-3. It can be easier with a two-goal lead.”
Stability has plagued Coyotes’ blue liners throughout the 2013-14 campaign, and that issue might have been exacerbated with the loss of Derek Morris.
Morris, who has missed time due to multiple lower-body injuries this season, skated for just over six minutes of ice time in the first period and landed a noteworthy hit on Kris Vrsteeg before leaving with an upper-body injury. He did not return for either the second or third periods.
“Mo won’t go on the trip,” Tippett said after the two-goal victory. “The break will be coming at a good time for him. It’s just precautionary.”
In 44 games this season, Morris has five goals, 12 assists and a plus-minus of eight.
He Said It:
“If you look at the some of the games that we’ve played and played well in, I thought today was one of the better ones. I thought we did a really good job all over the ice. Our forwards were awesome. Obviously, Smitty was great. I thought we did a good job letting him see pucks and nothing them so many opportunities.” — Coyotes defenseman Keith Yandle
– Keith Yandle’s first-period goal and second-period assist added to his already team-leading power play points’ total. Yandle, who has 21 power play points, moved into a tie for 8th place in the NHL for power play points.
– Martin Hanzal was scratched from Friday’s contest. Before taking the DNP, Hanzal had recorded just one point in his last five games.
– In addition to the pre-game festivities honoring the Sochi-bound players for both squads, the Coyotes paid tribute to members of the 1980 US Olympic hockey team, including captain Mike Eruzione, Neil Broten, Steve Janaszak, Rob McClanahan, Ken Morrow, Jack O’Callahan, Buzz Schneider, Dave Silk, Bob Suter, Phil Verchota and Mark Wells.
“The Olympics is near to my heart, even though I played for a different country a couple of times,” said Tippett. “The Olympic spirit is very unique. When you meet people who have experienced it, there are interesting conversations. I got to talk to a lot of the guys before the game, and there are a good bunch of guys. It shouldn’t be understated the influence they had on hockey in the United States.”
Although the Coyotes (27-20-10) end the night in sole possession of the No. 8 spot out West, it could all be for naught if they close out the pre-Olympic slate in loss column Saturday night. Four days removed from an ugly 3-1 home loss to the Dallas Stars (26-21-10), Phoenix will pay a visit to it former divisional foe at the American Airlines Center. Puck drops at 6:00 p.m. MST and can be heard on KMVP 860 AM.