ST. PAUL, Minn. – With their first trip to the playoffs since 2002 inching closer and closer to a certainty, the Phoenix Coyotes may want to find a way to face Minnesota in round one.
Martin Hanzal had a goal and an assist and the Coyotes completed a season sweep of the Wild with a 3-2 victory on Wednesday night.
Hanzal scored in the first period and assisted on Radim Vrbata’s team-leading 20th goal in the third period. The Coyotes won twice in Minnesota and twice in Arizona for their first season sweep of the Wild in franchise history.
“We’re just trying to get in the playoffs first,” said Coyotes coach Dave Tippett, unconcerned with which opponent they may face there. “We’ll worry about ourselves. We’re not going to worry about Minnesota.”
Minnesota got an early power play goal by Guillaume Latendresse – his fourth in three games against Phoenix this season. Martin Havlat also scored for the Wild, who failed to get at least a point at home for the first time in the past nine games.
Wild coach Todd Richards said his team needs to adopt a shoot-first mentality as they fight to catch Calgary for the final playoff spot in the West.
“We’re looking to make that extra-pretty pass, looking for the empty net,” Richards said. “We have to be a team that shoots the puck and goes to the net.”
The Coyotes, who have won eight of their last nine games, controlled the faceoff circle for much of the night and got 29 saves from Ilya Bryzgalov to solidify their hold on third place in the Western Conference. Phoenix now has 79 points with 21 regular season games remaining. The Coyotes had 79 points in 82 games last season.
Minnesota took the game’s first lead on an early power play. Marek Zidlicky’s blast from the blue line was mishandled by Bryzgalov, allowing Havlat and Latendresse to poke at the loose puck. Latendresse got his third goal of the past four games by shovelling the puck over the goal line before Bryzgalov could get control. It was a rare time when Minnesota went hard to the net.
“I think we were creating chances and we weren’t just shooting the puck at the net,” Havlat said. “We were creating chances but we weren’t shooting at the right moment. We were looking for a better pass at the end of the play.”
Out-shot 8-1 early in the game, the Coyotes rattled off eight unanswered shots in a row. They tied the game when Hanzal caught Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom leaning the wrong way, and ripped a rising shot in from the left circle. Phoenix nearly took the lead later in the first on a power play, but Shane Doan’s shot from the top of the crease clanked the left post.
But early in the second, Doan set up the play to put the Coyotes up 2-1, feeding the puck to Matthew Lombardi for a quick shot from the left circle. Lombardi’s shot sailed just under the crossbar.
“Mentally you maybe get yourself up a little bit more because you recognize how much they’d dominated us, and particularly Backstrom had dominated us, over the last few years,” said Doan, who leads the team with 29 assists. “We knew we had to get pucks to the net and get some traffic in front of (Backstrom).”
Vrbata’s third period shot was deflected up and landed behind Backstrom to give the Coyotes a two-goal lead.
Backstrom, who had missed the previous six games with a combination of back trouble and an undisclosed illness, had 28 saves but is now just 1-3-1 in his past five starts.
“We started strong and finished strong,” Backstrom said. “If we just play like that for 60 minutes, I think we have a chance.”
NOTES: The Coyotes are a league-best 21-4-5 in one-goal games. … Wild F Chuck Kobasew practised with the team on Wednesday morning for the first time since suffering a knee injury in a home win versus the Blues on Dec. 26. … Mikkel Boedker and Jeff Hoggan were recalled from the Coyotes AHL team in San Antonio on Tuesday. Boedker played on the Coyotes fourth line on Wednesday, while Hoggan did not dress for the game.