If the Phoenix Coyotes are to make some noise down the stretch and into the playoffs, their collective ability to shut down the opposition will be paramount.
In defeating Washington 3-2, Feb. 14 for their fifth straight win, the Coyotes reached 69 standing points and leap-frogged past Dallas and Anaheim to take sole possession of first place in the NHL's Pacific Division. In reaching this height, the defensive effort has been solid, and coach Dave Tippett told reporters after the Capitals game goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov has been his best player through this winning streak.
Clearly, the Coyotes have climbed from the abyss of a 6-0 loss to Vancouver at home Feb. 2, and that defeat acted as a catalyst for this current surge.
While the defense has been strong over the past two weeks, it was the ability to shut down key players in critical times which fueled this drive.
Case in point was two consecutive games in mid-February against Chicago and Washington, two of the NHL's best teams. In defeating the Blackhawks 3-2 in a shootout Feb, 12 and then beating the Capitals 3-2 two nights later, the defense demonstrated the kind of the play necessary to advance through the Western Conference race and, ultimately, into postseason play.
Particularly encouraging, from a Phoenix vantage, was the back-checking of forwards and defenseman standing up a the blue line in the Chicago and Washington wins. As pundits like to say, offense gets headlines, but defense wins championships.
"The key to our success is defense," forward Vernon Fiddler said after he scored the game-winner against Washington early in the third period. "In the tight games, you better play good defense and here, we're doing what we do best."
Against Chicago, Bryzagalov stopped Patrick Kane in overtime and also kept Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Marion Hossa, in that order, off the scoreboard in the shootout to preserve the win. Two nights later, the defense gave Alex Ovechkin no scoring points as well as Nicklas Backstrom, his lethal linemate.
To power the defensive effort, the Coyotes allowed Ovechkin six shots on net, held Backstrom to three and limited Alexander Semin to one shot on net and one assist. Still, it's no secret why the Coyotes have emerged as one of the best teams in the Western Conference.
"We expect to win," Tippett said after the Washington game. "Sure, we have a game plan every night, but we have plans to go after certain players. There are certain players you must be aware of, and set a plan accordingly.
Another characteristic the Coyotes will need in the final month and half is resiliency. In the two games against Chicago and Washington, the Coyotes demonstrated the ability to shake off adversity and move forward.
Against the Blackhawks, the Coyotes built a 2-0 lead, lost that and then came back to gain a shoot out victory. Two night later, Marcus Johansson gave the Caps a 1-0 lead, but Phoenix responded with goals from Martin Hanzal and a power play tally from Ray Whitney to forge a lead. Then, Fiddler picked up the game winner at 4:24 of the final period.
"That Vancouver game really shook up this team," said Scottie Upshall, whose pass on a 2-on-1 set up Fiddler's game winner against Washington. "We've faced a great deal of adversity to overcome, and now, we're doing what it takes to win."
Forward Radim Vrbata picked up an assist Feb. 14 against Washington, and gathered five points his last four games to that point. Six different players picked up points in the Washington game.
On gaining first place in the Western Conference, Whitney said, "That doesn't mean a whole lot to me. It's the tightest I've ever seen. We realize that for the rest of the way it's going to be pretty tight."
Tippett said Bryzgalov will start Feb. 17 against Atlanta. That's when the Coyotes conclude a stretch of six home games in seven, and promised Jason LaBarbera will get some starts on an upcoming road trip to Nashville, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Columbus and Chicago.