Doan, Smith, Vrbata Need to Step Up for Phoenix Coyotes

Mark BrownContributor IApril 11, 2013

Captain Shane Doan is one player who needs to pick up his game down the stretch.
Captain Shane Doan is one player who needs to pick up his game down the stretch.Perry Nelson/Getty Images

With eight games to play, the hour is getting desperate.

Perhaps more desperate.

After April 10, the Phoenix Coyotes, along with five other teams, are within five points of each other. The positioning for the final three postseason slots in the Western Conference is now underway.

With their win over Edmonton Wednesday night, the Coyotes (42 points) moved within one point of eighth-place Detroit and four points of St. Louis and Minnesota (each tied with 46 points).

In winning four of its last five games, Phoenix is perhaps playing its best hockey of the season. With the return of Mike Smith (missed six games) between the pipes and a heightened sense of urgency, the Coyotes are limiting good chances to opponents and allowing a lower number of goals.

The result has pushed the Yotes into the playoff picture, but several key players need to step forward.

Earlier this season, coach Dave Tippett called out captain Shane Doan for carrying too much baggage on the ice. Though he picked up six points in his last nine games, Doan responded with physical play and leadership.

“One of the reasons we’re ready better in recent games is that we’re not giving a goal immediately after scoring ourselves,” Doan said before the Coyotes embarked on their present three-game road trip. “It’s encouraging right now and we need to keep that up.”

If the Coyotes are to challenge for postseason positioning, Doan remains an integral part. It’s unusual for Tippett to throw players under the bus, but when he cited the lackluster play of his captain, that ignited a spark.

Within the team perspective, one example to support Doan’s theory transpired in the second game of the current road trip.

After a scoreless first period at Edmonton, Boyd Gordon put Phoenix on the board with his fourth goal of the season just 37 seconds into the middle period. After the Oilers began to pepper Smith, Antoine Vermette created that needed buffer space when he deposited his ninth goal of the season at nine minutes even. The Coyotes went on to post a 3-1 win in the Rexall Place and moved to within one point of the eighth-place Red Wings.

To remain in postseason contention, the Coyotes must also receive a strong effort from Smith down the stretch.

Missing six games due to a collision with Vancouver’s Alexander Edler on March 21, Smith returned to the net and allowed one goal in two consecutive games and posted a shutout over Colorado on April 6.

“Mike is very competitive,” said Tippett. “We need him to be competitive, and by doing that, he’ll keep us in games.”

Forward Radim Vrbata also needs to get hot at the right part of the season..

After missing 14 games with a foot injury, Vrbata returned to the lineup March 19 at Los Angeles. In 11 games since, Vrbata scored three goals, two in one game against Nashville on March 28. The right-handed sharpshooter is the sniper the Coyotes need to produce wins.

Coming into Friday’s game in Calgary, the 31-year-old native of Miada Boleslax, Czech Republic picked up seven goals in 26 games, but he needs to light a flame.

It’s no secret the Coyotes score by committee and Vrbata’s ability to stick the puck in the net would be welcomed.

With three of their remaining eight games at home, the Coyotes must elevate their intensity level and heighten their sense of urgency,

In the end, Tippett hopes his players get the message that sands are rapidly falling through the hourglass.

Mark Brown is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.