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Zbynek Michalek impresses in return, puts Coyotes at full strength for first time in months

GLENDALE, Ariz. — When Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Zbynek Michalek told head coach Dave Tippett earlier this week that he was ready to return after a 13-game absence, the plan was to bring the nine-year veteran along slowly.

And while a shade over 16 minutes of ice time in Thursday’s 1-0 victory over the Vancouver Canucks would seem to support that line of cautionary thinking, Michalek played an instrumental role in helping Phoenix snap its four-game losing streak.

Michalek, who has played just five games since Nov. 14 due to multiple lower-body injuries, was a prominent fixture on the Coyotes’ penalty kill — a unit that was thrust into action on seven separate occasions in the one-goal win.

The 31-year-old blue liner didn’t block or deflect a single shot on the evening, but he continually boxed out his man, poked pucks free and made winning plays, the kind that allowed goaltender Mike Smith a clear line of vision on the majority of the 28 shots he faced.

“The penalty kill is one of his strengths, so it was a very nice surprise having him jump in or say he wanted to jump in,” Tippett said of Michalek. “Tonight, he became a valuable player for us in that end.

“He kept shifts real short. He played a real steady, simple game. A hard-working simple game is what he does. He defends well and blocks shots. He’s a hard player, and we missed that back there.”

It’s hard to quantify how valuable a 6-foot-2 defenseman with four points on the season can be to a team chasing the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, but the Coyotes have been a different squad when Michalek has been on the ice in 2013-14.

According to Smith, who recorded his first shutout since last April, that’s because the Sochi-bound defenseman brings a level of stability and accountability on the back line that simply ceases to exist when he’s out of the lineup.

“I can’t say enough about Z,” Smith said. “He’s just such a solid player for us. When he’s out of the lineup, we lack that. All of our defensemen were great tonight, and I think Z coming back in gives the defensive core a lot of confidence.

“He just makes the simple plays and good plays at good times and blocks shot. He does all the hard things it takes to win games. Other guys see him doing that, and they want to get engaged. [Having him back] is good.”

How good?

Thursday’s win over Vancouver moved Phoenix’s record to 16-6-3 in games Michalek has appeared in this season. During his 13-game hiatus, the team was an abysmal 3-7-3.

But that’s where the doom and gloom appears to end for the Coyotes.

That’s because Michalek’s return also marked the first time in months that the team has played with a full bill of health — something it will need if it plans to be a part of the playoff picture down the stretch.

“You don’t want to create excuses for yourself, because every team has to go through injuries,” Coyotes center Antoine Vermette said. “But what it makes it so fun to play on this team is that we rely on all individuals. Hopefully, we’ll have all the guys with us and everyone can contribute and bring something real positive.”

If their one-goal victory Thursday night was any indication, positivity might just be in the full-strength Coyotes’ future moving forward.