GLENDALE, Ariz. – Released, bought out and waived during in his 19-year career, vagabond Ray Whitney has persevered and is still going strong at age 39.
On Saturday night, "The Wizard" added one of hockey's most magical numbers – 1,000 career points – to his list of accomplishments and helped his team to a key victory.
Whitney became the 79th player in League history to reach No. 1,000 with a second-period power-play assist -- then added a goal 40 seconds later -- as the Phoenix Coyotes overcame a listless start to throttle the Anaheim Ducks 4-0, moving them a step closer to making the Stanley Cup Playoffs for a third straight season.
"It hasn't been overly easy, I've had to earn what I've done," said Whitney, who accomplished the feat with his father Floyd, a former practice goalie with the Edmonton Oilers, in the stands. "I've been on seven teams, I've been bought out twice, and I've been on waivers a couple of times. There's been a couple of times where it didn't look like it was going to go on any further so this is something I'm very proud of."
The assist was Whitney's 51st of the season, the most ever by a Phoenix Coyote and the most in franchise history since Phil Housley had 79 assists for the 1992-93 Winnipeg Jets – the same year a rookie named Teemu Selanne potted an NHL-record 76 goals for the franchise.
Goalie Mike Smith was the key player for Phoenix in the game, making 21 of his 44 saves in the first period as he recorded his second straight shutout and stretched his scoreless streak to 159 minutes, 59 seconds. The Coyotes entered the game with the NHL's worst power play at 13.2 percent but scored on all three of their attempts in the second period as Andrew Vermette, Vrbata and Whitney all beat Anaheim backup goalie Jeff Deslauriers.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson also scored for Phoenix on a first-period breakaway.
With 91 points, the Coyotes moved up to seventh in the Western Conference playoff race – one ahead of San Jose and two ahead of Dallas – with three games to play. They also pulled even in points with the Pacific Division-leading Los Angeles Kings, who own the tiebreaker by virtue of winning the season series.
Just a month shy of his 40th birthday, Whitney has 77 points this season and 39 in his last 34 games. But none was bigger than the one that came after a Corey Perry instigated a fight with Phoenix forward Gilbert Brule at 15:56 of the second period, giving the Coyotes a 5-on-3 power play.
With the two-man advantage almost over, Whitney slid a cross-crease pass to Vrbata, who was just off the left post and fired home his 33rd goal at 16:14. Whitney raised both hands skyward as Vrbata raced to retrieve the puck and the crowd of 15,856 at Jobing.com Arena rose as one.
His teammates cleared the ice before the ensuing faceoff, leaving Whitney alone to receive the accolades.
"It helps when you have a 30-goal scorer playing with you and the chemistry Marty [Hanzal] and [Vrbata] and I have had most of the season has been a big factor," Whitney said. "[Passing to him] was the safest bet. I threw it to Shane [Doan] and he threw it back to me, so I said ‘Well, I'll try the other way now' -- and Verby's shooting percentage is pretty good when he in that close."
Phoenix was still on the power play -- and before the hoopla had time to die down, the Coyotes corralled an Anaheim turnover and Vrbata returned the favor by setting up Whitney at 16:54 for a 4-0 lead.
"I said after I scored I was going after the next thousand, being the smart [guy] that I am," he said. "Bang-bang like that was pretty special, but it also gave us the cushion we needed with the game."
The rout didn't start out that way. The Ducks conducted target practice on Smith in the first period, unleashing 10 shots in the first six minutes and 21 before the horn went off to end the period. But Smith, who made 38 saves as he shut out San Jose 3-0 on Thursday, put on a clinic and fought off Anaheim at every turn.
Named team MVP for the season before the game, Smith took a Nick Bonino shot off his mask in the second period and robbed Bobby Ryan with a brilliant glove save in the third to record his seventh shutout and go back-to-back for the second time this season.
"It was kind of a scary game … they are a team that's not in the playoff race but they have firepower up front," Smith said. "We didn't come out in the first period like we wanted to and we knew we had to play better."
The Ducks took 77 shots at Smith but never found the back of the net.
"It was one of those nights when we weren't going to beat that guy," Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau said. "When Bobby Ryan beats him and hits [Phoenix center] Boyd Gordon in the back of the head and it bounces over the net, nothing is going to go in."
Smith made three saves on Selanne, who has 1,404 points and saluted Whitney for joining the 1,000-point club. "I'm so happy for him. He's a smart, good player and fun to watch. Only numbers, those ages are, you know?" the 41-year-old said.
Whitney returned the compliment. "I looked at the stats and I see I'm 400 points behind Selanne, who is out there tonight too," he said. "That kind of puts it in perspective."
It was a must-win game for the Coyotes but they didn't wake up until Smith stopped Selanne and Saku Koivu on a dominating Anaheim power play with Ekman-Larsson off for hooking. But as the penalty ended, the Coyotes caught a break.
Just as Ekman-Larsson exited the box, the Coyotes collected the puck in their zone and Mikkel Boedker caught him on stride with a crisp pass beyond the red line. Ekman-Larsson breezed in alone, deked Deslauriers and slid the puck between his pads at 6:10. It was Ekman-Larsson's 13th goal of the season – fifth among NHL defensemen – and his fifth in the last 10 games.
The Coyotes tightened up defensively in the second period, not allowing a shot in the first five minutes, and after killing off their third penalty of the night, cashed in on a power play after a tripping call against Koivu. Derek Morris waited for traffic to form in the slot and uncorked a shot from the point that Vermette deflected past Deslauriers for his 11th goal and third as a Coyote to make it 2-0 and begin a big period for the Coyotes.
From there, Whitney stole the show, leaving his teammates with smiles as well.
"It's not just that he's accomplished something very few people do, it's the way he's doing it," said Morris, who reached the 1,000-game milestone last Sunday. "He's getting better and better every single year. He's not putting up 20 or 30 points. He's at 75 and he's leading our team and putting up huge goals in his old age."