Phoenix Coyotes had a hard time keeping up with the Western Conference playoff pack with pivots Martin Hanzal and Boyd Gordon out for extended periods in the middle of the season.
Now with both players back in uniform and centering the team's top two lines, the Coyotes look more like what they're hoping there is still time to be – a playoff team.
Hanzal scored a pair of goals and Gordon got things started with a shorthanded tally in the first period as the Coyotes backed the 30-save effort of goalie Mike Smith with enough offense to beat the Detroit Red Wings for the first time in almost a year, 3-1, at Jobing.com Arena on Monday night.
Hanzal and Gordon have combined for four goals and seven points in the last two games as the Coyotes scored rare back-to-back wins over San Jose (5-3 Saturday) and the Red Wings, who had won seven straight over Phoenix – including four straight in last year's playoffs – and hadn't lost to Phoenix since Mar. 5, 2011.
And with the two defensive-minded pivots around to check lines led by Joe Thornton and Logan Couture of San Jose and Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg of Detroit, the Coyotes had a more even playing field to work with.
"You look at the last two games and those guys are playing against the two lines and that's no easy chore," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said. "When you have Thornton and Couture and then you have Datsyuk and Zetterberg – it shows how much they mean to our team and how much we missed them when they were out."
Four big points in 48 hours inched the Coyotes within two points of eighth-place Minnesota in the West and within a point of ninth-place Dallas – where the Coyotes will be Tuesday night to take on the Stars. It also ended a season-long, six-game homestand that started with an overtime loss to Detroit and included bitter losses to Tampa Bay and Anaheim on a happy note.
The Coyotes have won back-to-back games for the first time since Dec. 20-21, when they beat Florida and Carolina on the road. Phoenix lost Smith to an injury in Florida and Hanzal to the concussion two days later, when they lost to the Blues and began a 4-9-5 slide that finally ended with Saturday's win over San Jose.
Johan Franzen had his 20th goal of the season on the power play for the Red Wings, who were 9-1-1 in their last 11 games but ended a five-game road trip with losses at Edmonton and Phoenix. Detroit's lead over the New York Rangers for the top spot in the NHL standings remains a single point.
"After we scored a goal I thought we played great," Datsyuk said. "But we couldn't score and Smith played well."
But the Red Wings, now 2-for-45 on the power play over their last 16 road games, also allowed their sixth shorthanded goal of the season and lost the special teams battle again. They dropped to 15-15-1 on the road this season – a far cry from their sparkling 20-2-1 record at Joe Louis Arena. Goalie Joey MacDonald, subbing for the injured Jimmy Howard, made 20 saves and kept his team in the game.
"I thought we didn't execute as well as we'd like in our own zone," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. "But you've got to give them credit. I thought they played hard and I thought we played hard. We just had too many turnovers and a lot of their offense, in my opinion, came off of that."
Detroit had their chances but Smith – who has stopped 103 of 108 shots three appearances over Detroit in the last month but lost the previous two in frustrating shootout fashion – made an early 2-0 lead stand up to record 20 wins in a season for the time in his career.
"It's been a struggle finding ways to beat this team," Smith said. "They're obviously an elite team and any game against them is going to be hard. But we were gritty tonight. To be the best, we're going to have to beat the best and we're going to have to beat the teams ahead of us to get into the playoffs."
Hanzal, who missed almost a month after suffering a concussion when he was hit in the head with a stick by St. Louis' David Backes on Dec. 23, now has three goals and four points in the last two games and eight on the season. And Gordon, who missed eight games during the same period that Hanzal was sidelined, has a goal and three points over the same span.
"It was frustrating to sit and not be able to help when the team had to play all those road games and it was so hard," Hanzal said. "Now I have a chance to make an impact. I am healthy and there are no excuses. I want to be a leader and help us win."
Gordon got the Phoenix offense going during an abbreviated Detroit power play in the first period. Defensemen Niklas Kronwall and Ian White collided in pursuit of a wayward Zetterbeg pass. Gordon collected the loose puck, skated in alone and deked McDonald to slide his sixth goal of the year around the left pad at 7:22
For the third time in the last month, the Coyotes scored first against Detroit – but this time, they were able to build on it.
After Phoenix defensemen Oliver Ekman-Larsson drew back-to-back penalties – to White for tripping and Datsyuk for hooking – in the second period, Phoenix's dead-last-in-the-NHL power play finally cashed in on their fourth try in the first 27 minutes.
With Hanzal and Radim Vrbata both in the slot to screen MacDonald, Ray Whitney's slap shot weaved through the traffic, found Hanzal's thigh pad and deflected up and in at 6:55. The goal gave the Coyotes their first two-goal lead over the Red Wings since Oct. 28. 2010 – a span of 11 games (seven regular season, four playoffs).
It didn't last long. This time Phoenix took back-to-back penalties, with Rostislav Klesla following Michal Rozsival into the box when he whacked a puck out of mid-air and over the glass for a delay of game. Just 10 seconds into Klesla's penalty. Zetterberg found Franzen at the mouth of the crease with position on Ekman-Larsson. Franzen punched it by Smith at 17:24 to cut the lead in half and put the Red Wings within striking distance.
But Smith shut the door from there, stopping all 11 shots he saw in the third, two of them on a late Detroit power play. Hanzal put the game out of reach by tucking an empty-netter home with 28.5 seconds left.