GLENDALE, Ariz. – With Ilya Bryzgalov again at the top of his game, the Phoenix Coyotes have ridden the wave to the top of the Pacific Division.
The Coyotes won for the fifth straight time Monday, and Bryzgalov's 29 saves combined with 20 blocked shots from his teammates and five penalty kills as Phoenix squeezed out a 3-2 win over the frustrated Washington Capitals at Jobing.com Arena.
Martin Hanzal and Ray Whitney each scored off set-ups from linemate Radim Vrbata, but it was Vernon Fiddler's third-period hustle goal that proved the difference – allowing Bryzgalov and the penalty killers did the rest.
"Bryzie was as good as I've ever seen him tonight. Just unbelievable," Phoenix captain Shane Doan said. "He's had two shutouts during this run, but he was way better tonight than in either of those games.
And he had to be because we made it tough on him with all the penalties."
The win catapulted Phoenix over Dallas and Anaheim and into the top spot in the Pacific – and third place in the Western Conference – with 69 points. This is the latest the Coyotes have led a division since moving to Arizona in 1996.
"Just wait a day, we'll be back in fourth (place), that's how tight this thing is right now," said Whitney, who has seven points in his last four games after notching a goal and an assist Monday. "It's the tightest I've ever seen it. You have to win five in a row just to hold your head above water."
Marcus Johansson and Matt Bradley scored for Washington, but the Capitals came up empty on 13 power-play shots on their first four chances of the night and now without a goal in their last 15 power-plays.
"We were moving it around and we looked like a power play," said Washington coach Bruce Boudreau, who has made special teams a point of emphasis in practice. "I thought for sure we were going to score a couple of goals on it. Sometimes, it's not meant to be."
A very quirky game was decided on a strange play. Just after Phoenix's fifth and final penalty kill early in the third period, Fiddler was chased out of the face-off circle and replaced by Lee Stempniak. Stempniak won the face-off and Fiddler wound up with the puck on his stick and a off to the races with teammate Scott Upshall for a 2-on-1 break. Fiddler buried Upshall’s return pass at the 4:24 mark and the Coyotes had a 3-1 lead.
Bradley made it 3-2 with a goal from the left circle 40 seconds later, but Bryzgalov shut the door from there.
"It's funny how it goes sometimes. I get kicked out of what I'm here to do and the puck bounces right to me," Fiddler, who scored for the first time since Jan. 11, said. "Our penalty kill (22nd in the NHL) did a great job tonight and it has to be much better if we're going to be successful down the stretch."
Washington goalie Michal Neuvirth saw only 18 shots, but the Coyotes made the most of their chances. Alex Ovechkin and Mathieu Perrault had 11 shots between them but were turned away.
"We had really good chances but we didn't score," Ovechkin said. "When you play well and lose it's going to look like you didn't play well. We just have to continue doing what we’re doing on the power play."
After a scoreless first period that featured only five shots on both sides, each team scored in a goal 49 seconds apart in the second– with Hanzal playing an integral role in both of them.
At 8:46, Johansson's centering pass from behind the net struck Hanzal and deflected over Bryzgalov to put the Caps ahead. But on the same shift, things evened out and Hanzal was the recipient of a good bounce. Vrbata's centering pass on the rush tipped off the stick of Whitney but dribbled right Hanzal, who swept in his career-high 12th goal to even things at 9:35.
Vrbata collected his sixth point (4-2-6) during this four-game point streak, later in the period when the Coyotes finally earned a power play. He fed Whitney in the slot for a one-timer that beat Neuvirth at 17:43 to give Phoenix the lead for good.
"After two periods, they had 13 shots on the power play and we had one," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said. "And they had zero goals and we had one."
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the latest the Coyotes were in first place before Monday was Feb. 12, 2000 when they had 67 points in 55 games.
The Capitals played without All-Star defenseman Mike Green, who took a slap shot to the head on Feb. 6 in Pittsburgh. He missed one game before playing 22 minutes against Los Angeles on Saturday, but was unable to go Monday.
Phoenix defenseman David Schlemko, out since Jan. 17 with a concussion, has been cleared by the doctors and took part in his first practice with the team on Sunday. He remains on the injured reserve list, but is now day-to-day.