LOS ANGELES, Calif. – The Phoenix Coyotes realize they’ll have to grind it out for 60 minutes or more every game to make the playoffs for the third straight season.
And in their latest matchup with division rival Los Angeles, they showed great resolve after losing one of their top defencemen.
Mike Smith posted his fourth shutout of the season after getting into first-period altercation with Anze Kopitar, Radim Vrbata tied a career high with his 27th goal, and the Coyotes beat the Kings 1-0 on Thursday night.
The victory tied them with Los Angeles for the seventh seed in the Western Conference, two points ahead of Calgary in what basically is a nine-team scramble for the final four spots.
“We’re deserving to win right now,” Smith said. “At the start of the season, maybe we lost some games we didn’t deserve to win. But right now we’re finding ways to win, and we’re doing it the right way. That makes it feel that much better. It was another great job in front of me.”
Smith made 28 saves for his 15th career shutout, and Vrbata scored on a power play in the second period. The Coyotes played most of the game short-handed on the blue line after Rostislav Klesla sustained an upper-body injury less than five minutes into the game after a solid check by Dustin Brown.
“When you lose Klesla, you’re down to five defencemen, so you’ve got to sustain some pressure in the offensive zone to take some of the pressure off your defencemen,” coach Dave Tippett said. “We had some shifts that really did that. We played a smart, hard game and found a way to win. That was a very competitive game.”
The Kings, coming off a 4-2 win over Dallas in which they had only 16 shots on net, returned from their 2-3-1 Grammy trip with their seventh shutout loss of the season.
“I’ve said it 100 times. This league is about having the lead and scoring the first goal. It’s a big difference in the game,” coach Darryl Sutter said. “They’re no different than anyone else when they have the lead. I said this morning that it would be a close game, and it was. Both teams have that nature about them. If you want to say anything about a playoff atmosphere, that’s what a playoff atmosphere is about.”
It was the eighth time Los Angeles was held to fewer than two goals in its last 13 games (5-5-3), and the fourth time this season that the Kings lost 1-0.
“We knew it was a big game,” Kopitar said. “And obviously at this time of the year, you want to create some separation. We failed to do that tonight, and it’s disappointing—especially at home.”
Vrbata scored while Kings defenceman Jack Johnson was serving a delay-of-game penalty for clearing the puck over the glass. Vrbata beat Jonathan Quick to the glove side with a 25-foot wrist shot from the right circle after getting a cross-ice pass from Ray Whitney.
The goal was Vrbata’s ninth game-winner of the season, one fewer than league-leader Johan Franzen of Detroit. The 10-year veteran right wing has league-best 19 goals on the road, three more than Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin.
“He’s phenomenal,” Tippett said. “He’s one of the purest skilled guys that we have, and he’s using his skill to have an effect on our team. He’s having a heck of a year for us.”
The game featured three fights in the first period, including a rare brawl between the team captains, as the Kings’ Dustin Brown and Shane Doan slugged it out at 4:37. Doan took exception to a hard open-ice hit Brown laid on Klesla that left the defenceman writhing in pain on the ice. Brown and Doan had words as they lined up for the ensuing faceoff, and the gloves came off three seconds after the puck dropped.
“It’s one of those things that’s part of our game,” Doan said. “Everyone realized how big the game was and how important it was to win, Both sides were trying to set the tone. Brownie plays that way all the time. He hits hard. I love the way Brownie plays. I mean, I’d love to have him on my team. But it’s part of the game to defend your teammates, and (Brown) was more than willing.”
Just 41 seconds later, Smith went after Kopitar after the Kings’ centre was shoved into the Phoenix goaltender by Brown. The collision drove Smith back into the net and knocked off his mask.
“That’s part of the game, and I understand that,” Smith said. “I got hit a little earlier, but then I got hit really hard the second time. I didn’t know what happened and I didn’t know who it was. I felt bad after that because I saw it was Kopi, and he’s a pretty good guy. He got pushed into me, I guess, but I didn’t see that. I kind of lost it a little bit and blew my temper.”
The Kings ended up with a power play, as Smith and teammate Adrian Aucoin were sent off for roughing. Kopitar was penalized for goalie interference.
Kings centre Mike Richards mixed it up with Martin Hanzal 56 seconds later, and Phoenix’s Raffi Torres got into a fight with Colin Fraser at 18:45 of the first. In all, there were 40 minutes in penalties in the period.
Notes: Phoenix LW Paul Bissonnette got into a third-period fight with Kevin Westgarth. The Coyotes ended up with 28 penalty minutes, after coming in averaging a league-low 8.0. … The Vrbata-Whitney-Hanzal line has combined for 10 goals and 18 assists in the last 10 games. … Kings D Drew Doughty hit the right post with a 60-foot wrist shot from the right point at 13:09 of the first period while Aucoin was off for high-sticking.