ST. LOUIS – Mike Smith stopped 161 shots in a row before finally letting one get past him. The rest of the Phoenix Coyotes took it from there.
“He’s been so big for us,” captain Shane Doan said after the Coyotes took the Pacific Division lead with one game to go with a 4-1 victory over the suddenly beatable St. Louis Blues on Friday night. “We wanted to give him a little break.
“It was nice to give him more than one goal to work with.”
Patrik Berglund’s rebound goal in the first period ended Smith’s shutout streak at 234:25 and tied it at 1, but Smith was perfect the rest of the way. The Coyotes won their fourth in a row and extended the Blues’ season-worst winless streak to four games in St. Louis’ home finale.
“We didn’t play the way we wanted to and we kind of got away from our game,” defenceman Alex Pietrangelo said. “That’s kind of been our trend the last little bit and we’ve got to find a way to get it back on track.”
Keith Yandle, Radim Vrbata and Mikkel Boedker also scored for Phoenix, and Antoine Vermette had two assists. The Coyotes, who’ve won the last four by a combined 14-1, can win the first division title in franchise history with a victory in the regular-season finale Saturday night at Minnesota.
Smith made 31 saves for the Coyotes, who have a one-point lead over Los Angeles and San Jose. The Kings and Sharks will play Saturday night in San Jose, with one team guaranteed to earn two points.
The Coyotes will get the third seed in the Western Conference if they win their finale, but will be the seventh or eighth seed if they lose.
“It’s a division title but more importantly, it’s home ice in the playoffs,” coach Dave Tippett said. “We’ve been talking about this for a long time, that we want to build to be a playoff team.”
Brian Elliott, whose scoreless streak ended at 241:33 in a shootout loss to Detroit on Wednesday, had 28 saves for St. Louis. The Blues were the first team to clinch a playoff spot and could still win the Western Conference with a win Saturday at Dallas along with a Vancouver loss at home against Edmonton, but are 3-4-4 in their last 11.
“There’s no more talking now,” captain David Backes said. “We’re at Game 82 tomorrow, let’s go out there and do what we know we have to do. Either we commit to this team game the way we have to be successful or we’re going to be talking like this in more scrums.”
The Blues finished a franchise-best 30-6-5 at home, but with a pair of blowout losses in the last three, also falling 5-2 to lowly Columbus last Saturday. A sellout crowd showed its frustration in the third period, with a beer bottle and a hat tossed onto the ice after Jamie Langenbrunner and Michal Rozsival tangled.
For the third straight game, coach Ken Hitchcock’s postgame remarks were brief and to the point.
“This is what happens when you play with skill ahead of work,” Hitchcock said. “Their level of defensive and checking commitment confused and frustrated our players.
“We wanted the game to be easier and it wasn’t.”
Phoenix avoided a season sweep by St. Louis after getting outscored 11-3 in three losses, including a 4-0 setback at home March 25. The Coyotes killed seven Blues’ power plays.
Smith took a blow to the head from teammate Rotislav Klesla’s leg in the second period but continued without a beat after getting medical attention in the net for a few minutes. After the game he said he felt fine.
“I think we played more to our identity tonight,” Smith said. “I think we were happy obviously with the outcome but moreso the way we played and how we won.
“It was nice to get back playing a gritty game, one we’re going to have to play down the stretch.”
Yandle scored his first goal in 11 games on the Coyotes’ second shot, hitting the top corner with a drive from beyond the left faceoff circle at 2:13. Berglund’s 19th goal tied it late in the period and the Blues outshot the Coyotes 11-0 the last 11 minutes of the first period, appearing to build some momentum.
Phoenix regained control early in the second, beating Elliott on consecutive shots by Vrbata from the slot and Doan on a rush for a 3-1 lead about 7 1/2 minutes in. Vrbata has 34 goals, the most for the Coyotes since Jeremy Roenick had 34 in 1999-2000.
The Blues missed a chance to climb back into it, coming up empty with 1:48 of a two-man advantage late in the period.
Notes: Doan has 20 goals and 46 points in 64 career games against the Blues. … Elliott and Smith fell well short of the NHL record of 332:01 set by Brian Boucher of Phoenix in 2003-04. … The Coyotes are 32-1 when leading after two periods. … Smith won for the first time in four career starts in St. Louis.