A team that at first found a way to come back and take control late in games found themselves somehow in the outside looking in.
Two teams came into town last week, both also trying to keep ground on a wild card spot. The Vancouver Canucks were in a better state than the New Jersey Devils, but the team from the Atlantic was in a similar state as Phoenix, both vying to earn as many points as possible.
“It seems like we have had a lot stacked against us lately,” Coyotes center Rob Klinkhammer said. “Against some tough teams ahead, we are going to come out harder than ever and hope we come out on top.”
Both teams entered the Valley of the Sun looking for two points. And both came up empty-handed.
The two-game rebound was exactly what the Coyotes needed, with how the season has been shaping up recently.
Goaltender Mike Smith had begun to lose control of stopping shots, while his team still was not stepping up defensively. Excuses also ran out now that the team is at full strength with their final scratch, defenseman Zbynek Michalek, able to dress Thursday against Vancouver.
But Michalek made his presence known during the team’s penalty kill, forcing the Canucks to go 0-for-7 on the power play.
“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,” head coach Dave Tippett said. “Tonight, he became a valuable player for us in that end.”
“We are a team right now that is trying to build some confidence,” Tippett said. “In a game like that, it became something where something that you had to earn felt very good.”
The biggest concern came Saturday night against the Devils, who haven’t been able to string together more than two consecutive wins at a time since November. New Jersey sat one point behind the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, and they were in the same position as the Coyote, desperate to stay alive.
But ironically enough, it was the Coyotes fourth line who stepped up. Jordan Szwarz knocked in a wrist shot, set up by Kyle Chipchura and Yandle, to give Phoenix the lead. Ten minutes later, Jeff Halpern put in another one from David Moss and Martin Hanzal. Phoenix then were able to hang on to the lead for a 3-2 victory and back-to-back win that they desperately needed with the Minnesota Wild occupying the wild card spot at four points ahead.
“I thought we did a great job as a team in a game like this,” Szwarz said. “It showed when we play with a lead like we had tonight. It was one of our keys to get to a good start, and we did that. Down in the final minutes guys were laying out blocking shots leading up to a pretty greasy effort.”
Phoenix has shown some signs of improvement in their last two wins. One thing the team has worked on is figuring out how to come from behind.
“It’s easy to get down on yourself and get negative. Things have been building and building, and finally it’s not even fun anymore,” Smith said after the victory against Vancouver. “I think I brought a new mindset to the rink to enjoy the game and be more positive, and it’s definitely given me more energy and let me feel better about my game.
Now with four more points in hand, where does Phoenix go from here with league break for the Olympics coming up?
Phoenix has four games left before the break to keep pace with the Western Conference. But three are on the road, which has been the team’s biggest struggle as Phoenix is 9-9-6,
Luckily, two of the three will be against teams at the bottom of the conference, Calgary and Edmonton, and the Coyotes also have the advantage over Vancouver and Minnesota in the standings, playing with two and three games in hand, respectively.
It’s time for the Coyotes to take control as they near the break.
“January has been a tough month so far, and it’s important in the second half to turn on the gas,” Smith said. “We’ve been searching for games like this recently.”