First a scoring slump set in right after his career-high 30th goal. That was followed by a nasty, persistent head cold that was stubbornly resistant to over-the-counter medication, forcing him to turn to antibiotics for help.
And then, on the ninth day of a strong, 10-day round of penicillin treatments with his body already full of the medication, Vrbata began to suffer an allergic reaction. It has lasted for more than two weeks, starting with a nasty rash that spread over his body, making sweating and wearing hockey equipment the absolute worst thing he could do.
Right Wing - PHX
GOALS: 32 | ASST: 26 | PTS: 58
SOG: 221 | +/-: 23
SOG: 221 | +/-: 23
Joint pain set in. Swelling. Severe cramping that shifted locations daily.
"It's like a constant cramp all over your body," Vrbata said. "Your fist or your shoulder hurts, or your groin. It's incredibly frustrating. It would feel good one day ... the next you wake up with so much pain, and you don't know where it came from or how to get rid of it."
The Coyotes got captain Shane Doan back from suspension for Thursday's showdown with the Sharks. Defenseman Adrian Aucoin returned from a lower-body injury. But the pregame questions centered around the status of Vrbata, who had 30 goals in the first 60 games of the season and is a critical part of the Phoenix offense.
At Thursday's morning skate, Vrbata's muscles were so tight he couldn't squeeze his stick with his fingers. But with the biggest game of the season looming against San Jose and Phoenix in dire need of a win to keep control of its own playoff destiny, Vrbata said he wanted to try it.
The Coyotes are glad he did. Vrbata scored his first goal since Feb. 21 on a second-period power play, added another on a two-on-one rush in the third period and gave Phoenix goalie Mike Smith all the offense he would need in a 2-0 shutout of the Sharks, allowing Phoenix to reclaim a spot among the top eight in the skin-tight Western Conference with four games left to play.
Both goals came on assist passes from Ray Whitney, the 998th and 999th points of his career, with the line of Vrbata, Whitney and Martin Hanzal reunited for the key game. That allowed the Coyotes to bolster the other lines and match the energy of the Sharks after a lackluster first period.
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Vrbata had missed five of the last seven games as his teammates scratched and clawed down the stretch, unable to help as they lost four out of six games, two of which included shootouts where he could have made a difference. He played twice during that span, but the rash and the joint pain was so intense in Edmonton on March 18 that he left in the second period.
The Coyotes' medical staff feels they have a handle on the problem. But even now, after his big game against the Sharks, the joint pain was returning in the dressing room, making Friday's practice and Saturday's game against Anaheim, another must-win for Phoenix, a mystery.
The Coyotes have four games left. And while Dallas, Los Angeles and San Jose will be beating on each other -- each team plays the other twice beginning Saturday -- the Coyotes must handle spoilers like Anaheim, Columbus and Minnesota and earn their way into the postseason for the third straight year.
Vrbata hopes he's on the ice contributing from here on out. But he knows might not be done suffering.
"I hope I wake up tomorrow up feeling fine. If it's good enough to go I will play," Vrbata said after Thursday's game, as the cramping set back in. "I was glad I could play and help tonight, it has been frustrating to watch everyone work so hard and you want to be doing your part.
"We are doing everything we to get it (flushed) out of my system. Right now, I'm feeling like (Friday) might not be so good. I will do everything possible, but I know I'm not over this. It's still there."