GLENDALE, Ariz. – Radim Vrbata had been plagued for two weeks by an allergic reaction to penicillin.
His return helped restore the Phoenix Coyotes to a healthy position in the tight Western Conference playoff scramble.
After a two-game absence, Vrbata scored twice and Mike Smith had 38 saves to shut out San Jose for the third time this season, leading the Coyotes to a critical 2-0 victory over the Sharks on Thursday night.
Vrbata had a power-play goal in the second period, then scored 8:17 into the third period on a slick pass from Ray Whitney. Whitney reached 999 career points, also assisting on Vrbata’s first goal.
The Coyotes rose from ninth to seventh in the Western Conference with four games to play, while San Jose fell from a tie for seventh to ninth behind idle Los Angeles. The victory, Phoenix’s fourth in six games against the Sharks, ensured the Coyotes the tiebreaker should the teams finish the season with the same record.
Phoenix and Pacific Division leader Dallas both have 89 points, but the Stars have played one fewer game. Dallas also holds the tiebreaker against Phoenix.
The Sharks have 88 points, the same as idle Los Angeles, but the Kings have a game in hand.
Vrbata said his bad reaction began March 14 as the Coyotes met Vancouver to open a four-game trip. He missed that game and four others, including the last two, and tried to play in two more.
“Even the games I played I was just trying to get through the games,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I had any energy to contribute as I would like. Now it seems like, hopefully, it’s under control. I was good enough to go tonight and I’m glad I could help.”
Smith moved up to a tie for third in the NHL in shutouts this season with six. Only Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles, Brian Elliott of the St. Louis Blues and Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers have more.
Since allowing six goals in the first 38 minutes of the season opener against San Jose, Smith has given up a combined six goals in five games against the Sharks, including the three shutouts.
“I think that first game of the year scared the heck out of everybody because we were so bad,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. “Since then we’ve been all right.”
Smith had 15 saves in the first period, keeping the game scoreless before his teammates broke through on offence.
“From the first drop of the puck they were firing on all cylinders,” Smith said, “and we kind of weathered the storm in the first period and got our legs going in the second.”
Vrbata scored 19 seconds into the power play after San Jose’s Patrick Marleau was sent to the penalty box for boarding.
The Coyotes’ Oliver Ekman-Larsson took a shot from just inside the blue line. Phoenix’s Martin Hanzal and Whitney each got a stick on the puck before Whitney saw Vrbata open. Vrbata found an open net in front of him and scored for the first time in 13 games.
The second goal—Vrbata’s team-high 32nd—came after a San Jose turnover, with Whitney on the breakaway directing a pass just over the outstretched stick of the Sharks’ Dan Boyle to Vrbata, who put the puck in the net past Antti Niemi.
“I guess years of practice,” Whitney said when asked why he decided to slip the pass over the stick rather than under it. “I don’t look for anything in particular. I just look for Vrbata’s stick and if there’s something in the way I need to go over or under it. You risk going over it, but it seemed to work.”
There was only one other penalty in the game, against Hanzal for hooking with 6:47 left in the second period.
Niemi finished with 31 saves.
“We had a ton of opportunities, some really good looks at the net, but it didn’t go in for us,” San Jose coach Todd McLellan said. “They capitalized on their chances, we didn’t. That’s the game. I keep saying that we got to leave this behind and move on, but with four left we better make some hay quick.”
The Sharks’ Joe Thornton called it “the biggest game of the year for us.”
“Especially early on, I thought we had good chances,” he said, “but Smith played well. It was another heartbreaking loss.”
The Sharks were playing their second game in two nights, losing 3-1 at Anaheim on Wednesday. The Coyotes had not played since a 4-0 home loss to St. Louis on Sunday.
Notes: All four of San Jose’s remaining games are against teams they are fighting for a playoff berth—two against Dallas and two against Los Angeles. … Phoenix D Derek Morris, who played in his 1,000th NHL game on Sunday, was honoured in a pregame ceremony. … Coyotes captain Shane Doan returned after a three-game suspension for elbowing Dallas’ Jamie Benn. … Phoenix D Adrian Aucoin was back after a six-game absence due to a lower-body injury.