GLENDALE, Ariz. - The Phoenix Coyotes have been talking with Radim Vrbata about a contract extension during the past few weeks. The sticker price for general manager Don Maloney might have just gone up.
Vrbata had a hat trick in last season's final game on April 27 against the Anaheim Ducks and picked right up where he left off by opening the new season with a natural hat trick that made the difference Thursday night in a 4-1 win against the New York Rangers at Jobing.com Arena.
Vrbata had a career-high 35 goals in 2011-12, when he helped the Coyotes to the Western Conference Finals. He dropped to 12 goals in the shortened 2012-13 season but seven of them came in three games - including five in the first and last games of the season.
The Coyotes are now 73-17-9 in the 99 games in which Vrbata has scored at least one goal, but they couldn't ask for more this time.
"It's a good start to the season. I'll take it," Vrbata said. "We jumped on them early and we played our game most of the night. We went after them and played how we have to play to win. It's great to get a hat trick, but it was exciting to see us play well and beat a good team."
Kyle Chipchura scored the Coyotes' first goal, but it was all Vrbata from there. He snapped a 1-1 tie with a hard-working goal 7:05 into the second period, added a power-play blast from the point 1:10 into the third and won a scramble in front of the net to pop home No. 3 with 12:37 left -- triggering a cascade of hats and sending the Coyotes off on a five-game road trip with some momentum.
"We'll be OK if he just gets one goal next game instead of three; we can work with that," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett joked. "He's been a real good player for us, and that third goal in tight was a really good play. That line [with Martin Hanzal and Lauri Korpikoski] played against their top line all night and did a great job."
Defenseman Marc Staal had a strong game for the Rangers and scored New York's lone goal during a power play 3:38 into the second period. In the first of nine road games to open the season, New York played without injured captain Ryan Callahan and forward Carl Hagelin and had trouble sustaining a sustained offensive push. Phoenix goalie Mike Smith made 23 saves and opened the season with a strong effort.
"When we got caught on there on some long changes we got running around," Staal said. "That's something we have to iron out. I thought parts of the game we had some good pressure to get good opportunities. Smith made some big saves in the first and second and we fell too far behind in the third."
Goalie Henrik Lundqvist came into the game with a perfect 4-0-0 career record and a 1.71 goals-against average against the Coyotes. He made 28 saves on Thursday but had no answer for Vrbata, who scored on three of his four shots as the Coyotes spoiled the Rangers coaching debut of Alain Vigneault.
"We had some opportunities. We just needed to make some plays," said Vigneault, who replaced John Tortorella during the offseason. "We have to make the right plays with the puck."
The Rangers will have some time to get used to Vigneault's systems; they're off until Monday when they visit the Los Angeles Kings.
After a standing ovation as the new nine-man ownership group who allowed the Coyotes to stay in Arizona was introduced at center ice, the Coyotes rode the energy of the opening night crowd to dominate the first five minutes and grab an early lead.
Just 3:36 after the opening faceoff, the Coyotes' fourth line pinned the Rangers in their own zone on the forecheck. Rob Klinkhammer feathered a pass from behind the net to the slot, where Chipchura punched a shot past Lundqvist. Phoenix had the first five shots of the game before New York's Michael Del Zotto tested Smith five minutes in.
Smith, who struggled last season with injuries and inconsistency, preserved the lead with several big saves during the remainder of the period. He went post-to-post to rob Benoit Pouliot on a 3-on-2 rush, snagged a Brad Richards power-play blast and stopped Anton Stralman from the slot.
"It felt like a playoff game in the building and we just fed off it," Smith said. "To see all the owners who bought the team and kept us here, it was unbelievable. But I don't think we're going to reinvent the wheel because we have new ownership. In order for this team to win we have to play a certain way and we did that tonight."
The Rangers started the second period with a push and it led to a feel-good, game-tying goal.
David Schlemko's interference penalty at 1:58 gave New York a power play, and Rick Nash drew both Phoenix defensemen toward him on the rush before feeding Staal on the wing. In just his second game since March 5, when a deflected shot by Philadelphia's Kimmo Timonen struck his right eye, Staal beat Smith to the short side under the crossbar with a wrist shot to make it 1-1.
The goal didn't provide much momentum for the Rangers. Phoenix answered right away with offensive pressure, forced John Moore to take a hooking penalty and attacked the New York net for almost the entire two minutes. And when the Rangers couldn't make a change after the penalty ended, Phoenix cashed in.
Lundqvist stopped a Derek Morris shot from the right point, but the rebound escaped into the slot. Vrbata grabbed the puck and was denied on a backhander, but ran down his own miss a flipped a forehand past Lundqvist at 7:05.
Lundqvist felt he might have been interfered with on the play.
"It was definitely tough for me to move" he said. "I was inside my crease and there could have been a call they didn't call it. It was a big goal. We felt like we were back in the game and playing really well but that second goal turned it back to their favor."
Vrbata put the game away in the third.
After New York's Dan Girardi was called for roughing at 1:02, Antoine Vermette won the draw back to Keith Yandle. Yandle set up Vrbata for a point blast that found its way through a Hanzal screen and past Lundqvist eight seconds later to give Phoenix a cushion. Vrbata put the game away again with a second-effort goal for his seventh career hat trick -- the first ever allowed in a season-opener by the Rangers since entering the NHL in 1926..
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