GLENDALE, Ariz. – The door was left wide open.
Losses earlier in the evening by both the Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild coupled with a home contest against the third-worst team in the Eastern Conference, the Florida Panthers, set the stage for potential movement in the Western Conference Wild Card race.
More often than not this season, the Phoenix Coyotes would let such an opportunity pass with nothing more than a puzzling 60-minute effort, but Thursday night at Jobing.com Arena was not one of those occurrences.
As was the case in Monday night’s 4-3 comeback win in Los Angeles, the Coyotes built a 2-0 lead in the opening period. Only this time, they didn’t need any late-game heroics to record two points.
Mike Smith stopped 22 of 23 shots he faced and it proved to be just enough as Phoenix downed Florida for the second time in 10 days by a final of 2-1.
“They all can’t be masterpieces,” Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett said. “We got up two goals, let’s just leave it at that. We’ll take the points.
“There wasn’t a lot of flow in the game, not a lot rhythm to the game. “There a team that’s playing free and easy. I think we’re playing like we want to push the game along. The two styles just led to a mucky game. But, we’ll take the points and move on.”
Phoenix will certainly move on, but it’ll do so holding a four-point lead over Dallas for the eighth spot in the Western Conference. While it wasn’t the prettiest display of hockey, the victory was the Coyotes’ third straight — the longest streak of the season since a five-game stretch from Oct. 26 – Nov. 5, 2013.
“Maybe it’s desperation,” Coyotes right winger Radim Vrbata said when asked to explain the recent streak. “We know where we are in the standings and that we need every point we can get. I think we lost too many games before where we were up and should have won. I think it’s desperation, plus tonight we had a healthy lineup.”
Having already faced Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo in March, the Coyotes had a simple formula Thursday night against him: fire shots from every angle and clean up the garbage.
That formula was put on display right away. After Florida right winger Jimmy Hayes took a hooking penalty one minute and 56 seconds into the first period, Phoenix capitalized quickly.
While Luongo handled the Coyotes’ first real chance on a shot from the right circle by Keith Yandle, the pressure didn’t stop. Off the ensuing draw, Oliver Ekman-Larsson took a shot from the point that bounced off of the skate of Martin Hanzal, who was shielding Luongo in front of the net and right onto the stick of Vrbata. The Coyotes right winger buried the rebound for his 20th goal of the season.
After Vrbata’s goal on the man advantage, the Coyotes didn’t fire another shot for nearly 16 minutes. However when they finally did get to Luongo again, they made him pay.
While Michael Stone’s slap shot from the blue line at the 18:36 mark of the period didn’t get by the Panthers netminder, center Antoine Vermette was right on the door step. His first rebound attempt was snuffed out but persistence and a convenient collision between Luongo and Mikkel Boedker in the crease led to a rather easy second effort.
“We sustained good pressure early on in that shift,” Vermette said. “Finally the puck went out in the neutral zone and it looks like they were changing with good numbers. I saw we got a transition play out of it, so I decided to stay in and go to the net.
“So was Boeds, he was picking up speed going to the net. I was able to finish the play.”
That he was, though Vermette did admit that Boedker and Luongo’s crash led to a sizable target.
“Not too many times [do I get a net that open to shoot at],” said Vermette. “It was good timing.”
Phoenix only put seven shots on goal in the opening period, but timely attempts from the point combined with physical play in front of Luongo created a 2-0 cushion — one it didn’t look back from over the final 40 minutes of play.
While the shooting drought didn’t last nearly as long as the one in the first period, Phoenix couldn’t muster any semblance of an offensive chance through the first seven minutes of the second period. As has become the norm, the Coyotes opened the frame with a rather apathetic mentality. The Panthers were quicker to the puck and actually put shots on goal.
Although Phoenix responded over the final 13 minutes with several offensive chances, including a trio of notable ones by Kyle Chipchura, Mike Ribeiro and Vermette, seven-minute lapses in the thick of a playoff race are awfully hard to justify.
It didn’t cost the Coyotes against an inferior foe, but the final 12 games of the regular season are littered with matchups against teams still in playoff contention.
“It seems like every time we go up 2-0, we kind of not stop playing…but it would be nice if we could make it 3-1 or 4-1 and put the game away. But for now, we’ll take two points anytime.”
Stat of the Game:
With his early power play goal, Radim Vrbata (20 goals and 28 assists) joined center Antoine Vermette (23 goals and 20 assists) as the only players on Phoenix’s active roster to record both 20 goals and 20 assists in 2013-14. Captain Shane Doan remains one goal shy of also becoming a member of the 20-20 club.
He Said It:
“Right up to that goal he let in [late in the third period to Scott Gomez], he was unbelievable. And then a little bit after that. He was making key saves at key times. I think that one just surprised him. It was a funny game that way, not a lot of chances but he made good saves. That’s exactly what we need out of him. ” – Dave Tippett on goaltender Mike Smith’s performance
– – Goaltender Mike Smith made his NHL-leading 59th start of the season against Florida and his 10th consecutive in between the pipes. The 10-game streak ties the third-longest of his career.
– – Thursday night marked just the 26th time the Coyotes and Panthers have faced one another. In fact, the 26 contests are the fewest in franchise history against an Eastern Conference opponent for Phoenix.
– – After a seven-game absence, top-line center Martin Hanzal continues to impress in his return to the ice. For the second consecutive contest, Hanzal recorded a key assist. Phoenix is 15-4-2 in 2013-14 when he has at least one helper.
– – With the 2-1 win, the Coyotes improved to 4-0-1 against the Panthers during Dave Tippett’s tenure as the team’s head coach.
The Coyotes might be riding high on their longest win streak of the calendar year, but they will have their work cut out for them Saturday night when the red hot Boston Bruins come to Jobing.com Arena. The reigning Eastern Conference champions are currently on a season-high 10 game win streak, one of which came against the Coyotes back in Boston earlier this month. The puck drops at 6:00 p.m. MST and can be heard on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.