The Phoenix Coyotes began the month of February in a funk. They're ending it on a roll.
Mike Smith stopped 21 shots Saturday as the Coyotes beat the Edmonton Oilers 3-1 to improve to 10-0-1 this month and move into first place in the Pacific Division. With 73 points, they're two in front of San Jose, which fell into second place after losing 6-2 at Nashville on Saturday. The Sharks do have two games in hand and can move back into first place with a win at Minnesota on Sunday.
Battling for first place wasn't on the Coyotes' agenda at the start of the month. They looked to be falling out of the playoff race when they ended January with a 4-1 home loss to Anaheim. But with Smith winning 10 in a row, they haven't lost in regulation since.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Ray Whitney scored in the first period for the Coyotes (32-21-9), who've won five in a row. After Ryan Nugent-Hopkins' goal early in the third period cut the Coyotes' lead to one, Shane Doan snapped home his 20th of the season with 2:32 left in regulation to seal the win.
"We talked about making February a big month for us and it has been," Doan said. "We've taken advantage of being at home a little bit more and having some time to rest.
"We know March is going to be a tough grind. We have a long way to go to the finish, and we have to make sure we take care of business in our next little homestand."
Despite the surge, Whitney said his team can't get overconfident.
"We're happy with what we have done," he said. "We've played well at times and competed hard most of the time.
"But we have to be careful not to get too excited or overconfident because of how things have gone. We've played well, but if you look at our schedule we have beat five teams that aren't in the playoffs this month and caught a couple teams that were struggling. We have to keep our feet grounded and remember that we are not there yet. We are not in the top-five or six in the League yet."
Smith was as good as he had to be, but he got plenty of help from his teammates, who limited the speedy Oilers' time and space.
"There are teams that are in the playoffs year after year for a reason, and this is one of them," said Oilers coach Tom Renney, who was back behind the bench after missing five games with a concussion sustained when he was hit in the head by a puck during practice.
Phoenix got a break to open the scoring. Ekman-Larsson's shot was headed wide but hit the leg of Edmonton defenseman Jeff Petry and deflected past Devan Dubnyk at 5:43.
But the Oilers got a break less than a minute later. Newcomer Antoine Vermette poked a puck that was sitting between Dubnyk's legs into the net, but the goal was waved off because the referee said the whistle had blown.
The Coyotes got their second goal with 1:14 left in the period when Ray Whitney, an Oilers stick boy as a kid, undressed defenseman Ryan Whitney and slid a backhander through Dubnyk's legs for his 18th goal of the season and 12th point in his last seven games against Edmonton.
"Giving up the first two makes it a tough hill to climb against a team like that," Oilers forward Taylor Hall said. "We made it really hard on ourselves."
It was a change for the Coyotes, who overcame 3-0 and 2-0 deficits to win their previous two games.
"Different than the last couple of games," coach Dave Tippett said with a laugh. "We wanted to come out and play a better first period. We wanted to be even or better after the first, and we were able to get a lead."
After a scoreless second period, Ales Hemsky, who signed a two-year contract extension on Friday, helped the Oilers get on the board 8:28 into the third when he threw a puck in front that Nugent-Hopkins deflected past Smith for his 14th of the season. Nugent-Hopkins returned to the lineup after missing 20 of the Oilers' last 22 games due to shoulder injuries.
"My shoulder felt good," said Nugent-Hopkins, the first player taken in the NHL Draft last June. "I wanted to help us get a win today and I thought we battled back in the third but we needed a better effort."
But Doan fired a laser from inside the top of the left circle past Dubnyk's glove for the clincher.
"I thought we defended well," Tippett said. "They're a dangerous team on the rush, and we wanted to make sure we weren't giving them easy opportunities, that anything they got they had to work for.
"We didn't give up a lot, and we got enough to win."
The Coyotes head home after a sweep of the two Alberta teams to host Vancouver on Tuesday. The Oilers visit Winnipeg on Monday.
"It's been a pretty good month," Tippett deadpanned. "Hopefully we can end it right."
Material from team media was used in this report.