With a most favorable schedule, the Phoenix Coyotes have not exhibited a sense of urgency.
In the middle of a stretch of nine out of 11 games at home, the Coyotes appear to be missing a vital link to success. In this early part of the season, Phoenix needs to learn to play with a lead, and it seemed to find the formula in the ninth game of this stretch against the New Jersey Devils.
In their latest venture, the Coyotes built leads of 1-0 and 3-2 before grinding out a 5-3 victory over the Devils before 7,434 at Jobing.com Arena. Falling behind, Phoenix picked up four late goals to grab the advantage, tightened their defense and played with a lead.
That was not the case earlier in the week.
Deadlocked with Dallas 1-1 late in a game at home Oct. 25, captain Shane Doan scored his 300th career NHL goal to push Phoenix up 2-1 in the final period. That lead quickly evaporated when the Stars tied the game in the last minute and gained two standing points with a shootout victory.
This time against the Devils, players lifted their collective game to a higher level, and the result was evident.
“Guys gave a little more, and we were going to the net more than in the past,” said coach Dave Tippett. “We needed to establish play a little harder, and I thought everyone competed hard."
This season, the Coyotes had leads that melted like an ice cream cone in the desert heat. Against New Jersey, however, Phoenix came from behind and responded to a 2-1 Devils lead with four unanswered goals to gain the victory.
The line of Martin Hanzal, Ray Whitney and Radim Vrbata accounted for six points, and Whitney, with two goals, came up with his first multi-goal game of the season.
First, Whitney tied matters at 2-2 at 11:24 of the second period, and then Raffi Torres put Phoenix ahead with his first of the season at 19:11 of the second.
Third-period goals from Hanzal and Whitney again help put the Coyotes at 4-3-2 on the season.
“First, you have the get the lead, and then learn to play with a lead,” Whitney said afterward. “In getting the lead (against the Devils), I thought we forechecked better and that gave us an edge.”
Whitney describes himself as a European player, and his hands essentially do the talking.
In 1,156 NHL games through Oct. 27, Whitney has picked up 589 assists to go along with 345 career goals. His ability to set up teammates remains his greatest strength, and he is the first to recognize his role.
“Results are always nice,” he added. "For me, I’m more of a finesse player."
Tippett put Whitney back at center between Hanzal on the left wing and Vrbata on the right. Hanzal responded with his second two-goal game of the season and second such effort in his last three games. He also scored twice Oct. 23 at Anaheim.
“I know (Whitney) can make plays, and I try to be in a position to get the puck from him,” Hanzal said. “I thought everyone played well (against the Devils), but getting a win is all that matters.”
The Coyotes conclude their current three-game homestand Oct. 29 against the L.A. Kings. After a one-game road trip to Denver, they return home to face Nashville, Edmonton and Montreal…In meeting with the media after the win against the Devils, Whitney had a wrestling-type belt over his left shoulder. Describing the “award” as instituted by the players, Whitney was designated by his team peers as “player of the game.” As the season progresses, such an award will be handed out by players to players...In the first nine games, Whitney has five goals; he scored 17 all of last season in 75 games. His career high is 32, set when he played with Florida in the 1997-98 season and equaled in the 2006-07 season with Carolina.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The quotes in this story were obtained by the author in postgame interviews on Oct. 27, 2011.