GLENDALE, Ariz. – Sitting in front of his locker, Radim Vrbata whips a roll of tape around the handle of his stick, working his way toward the end, where a few extra layers create a knob for better grip.
The way he’s been playing, Vrbata could coat his stick in soap and probably still find a way to get the puck in the net.
In the midst of a career season, Vrbata has provided the surging Phoenix Coyotes with clutch goal-scoring and steady, heady play at both ends of the ice.
“Vrby is a really good player, a really skilled player,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. “The one thing he’s done this season is turn into a go-to guy.”
Vrbata has been a solid, under-the-radar type of player during his 10-year NHL career, eclipsing 25 points in every season but one. He’s been consistent in his second go-round with the Coyotes as well, with 24 goals and 19 assists in 2009-10, 19 goals and 29 assists last season.
This year, the 30-year-old right wing from the Czech Republic has possibly been Phoenix’s best player, setting his career high with 30 goals while closing in on his career best for points with 52 in the first 61 games.
But it’s not just that Vrbata is scoring. It’s when he’s been doing it.
Vrbata is tied with Detroit’s Johan Franzen for the NHL lead with 10 game-winning goals, including four in a six-game stretch as the Coyotes climbed from 12th to seventh in the Western Conference and into a tie with San Jose atop the Pacific Division.
Game-winning goals can be misleading; someone scores in the first period, it holds up for two more, the goal becomes a game-winner.
But Vrbata has had a knack for finding the net at just the right time.
He patiently waited for Dallas goalie Kari Lehtonen to commit before scoring in overtime of Phoenix’s 2-1 win last Saturday, then had the tying goal with less than 3 minutes left in regulation of Phoenix’s shootout win over the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday.
“When you’re scoring, things are going well, you try things that maybe you wouldn’t try if you weren’t scoring or playing well,” Vrbata said. “I think it goes hand-in-hand and right now it seems like they’re just finding me at the right time or I’m at the right place at the right time.”
Vrbata’s game isn’t just about scoring big goals, though.
Early in his career, he was known for being crafty with the puck and scoring goals, not much else. As the years have gone by, Vrbata has become more versatile, developing into a two-way player who’s just as steady inside his own blue line as he is rushing across the other team’s.
He also understands his role with the Coyotes, providing goals for a team that likes to grind out low-scoring games while still staying mindful of Tippett’s defensive approach.
“One thing about Vrby, he’s a quiet player, a quiet person, but thoughtful, very well-respected in our room,” Tippett said. “One of his roles is to score for us and he takes that responsibility very seriously, and obviously he’s done a very good job of that this year.”
Vrbata’s breakout season has keyed Phoenix’s “Prime Line”—him on the right, Martin Hanzal at centre and 39-year-old Ray Whitney left.
Whitney has been an ageless wonder this season, a grizzled, creative veteran who has lived up to his nickname of “The Wizard” with jaw-dropping plays nearly every night and a team-leading 56 points.
Hanzal, an assistant captain, has been hampered off and on by injuries, but is dynamic for a big man, scoring goals and setting up his linemates.
Vrbata has been the finisher, leading the team in goals.
Combined, the trio has 55 goals and 80 assists, making it one of the most productive lines in the league.
“That line has been phenomenal for us,” Coyotes captain Shane Doan said. “When you have a line like that, you want to ride it as long as it can. It’s been huge for us having somebody scoring the way he (Vrbata) has.”
One thing that isn’t likely to happen is for Vrbata to get caught up in his success. He’s been around too long and knows how quickly things can change.
As a rookie with Colorado in 2001-02, Vrbata had 18 goals and 12 assists in the regular season and all but disappeared in the playoffs, scoring no points in nine games.
This season, he caused some grumbling after opening with one goal in the first nine games, then had two in each of the next two games.
Vrbata kept on scoring after that, putting together a career year that could vault the Coyotes into the playoffs for the third straight season.
“You don’t want to think about it too much, you just want to roll with it,” Vrbata said. “At the same time, I had some games where I wasn’t scoring, so you can’t get too high or too low. You just want to keep in middle and try to play the same way, see what happens.”