GLENDALE, Ariz. -- When Phoenix Coyotes center Antoine Vermette celebrated the return to his old stomping grounds with a Dec. 21 hat trick against the Ottawa Senators, he hoped it would be the catalyst to a hot streak.
The hot streak did come, but there was a delayed reaction.
After his three goals in Ottawa, Vermette went 11 games without a goal and had one assist during that span. With captain Shane Doan still not 100 percent and the Coyotes scrounging for goals, his cold snap was reflective of their offensive struggles.
But since scoring the only goal in a clutch 1-0 win against the Vancouver Canucks on Jan. 16, Vermette has had the hot stick the Coyotes need as they try to fight back into Western Conference playoff position. He added a second hat trick this season in an overtime loss to the Canucks on Jan. 26 and scored his seventh goal in the past seven games in a big 3-0 win against the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday.
Phoenix general manager Don Maloney called Vermette the team's most valuable player this season and the numbers bear it out. He leads the Coyotes with 19 goals and ranks in the top five with 32 points. He ranks 10th in the NHL by winning 56.1 percent of his faceoffs and his three shorthanded goals -- all coming in the past five games -- is just one behind Boston's Brad Marchand for the League lead.
And when Doan and Martin Hanzal were sidelined with injuries and ailments, Vermette stepped into the leadership void as an alternate captain and led by example.
"Even when he wasn't scoring, his work ethic remained the same," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said. "He's been very opportunistic and two hat tricks will move your numbers up fast. Plus he's on a line with (Lauri Korpikoski and Mikkel Boedker) that really likes playing with each other and they've been a real effective group."
Vermette and the Coyotes look to keep it going Thursday against the struggling Buffalo Sabres. Phoenix trails eighth-place Vancouver by three points but has two games in hand, and will try to take advantage of the Canucks' loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday. The Coyotes are shooting for back-to-back wins for only the second time since Dec. 10-12.
Thomas Greiss, who had two shutouts in his past three starts, will be back in the net after blanking the Kings on Tuesday. Buffalo will counter with Ryan Miller, who has had great success against the Coyotes in limited games over his career. Miller is 5-0-0 with a 0.98 goals-against average and a .966 save percentage against Phoenix.
Here is how the lineups for Buffalo and Phoenix might look Thursday: