VANCOUVER – Antoine Vermette is making up for a slow start with the Phoenix Coyotes with a late flourish he hopes will continue into the playoffs.
Acquired from last-place Columbus on Feb. 22 as a two-way center, Vermette didn't record a point his first six games for Phoenix. But he scored the winning goal on a power play early in the third period and added two assists in the Coyotes' 5-4 comeback win against the slumping Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday night.
Vermette has two goals and six points in five games since ending his early slump, helping Phoenix stay in the tight Western Conference playoff race.
"It is, no doubt about it," Vermette said when asked about contributing to the Coyotes' playoff push. "First couple of games it was almost a joke. I was right around it. But if you keep doing the right things it's nice to get rewarded at such a good time. It was huge to come back."
That the Coyotes did so after losing second-leading scorer Radim Vrbata as a late scratch due to an illness and falling behind two goals early was even more impressive.
Led by Vermette, three assists from fellow first-liner Ray Whitney, a key goal by Vrbata's replacement, Gilbert Brule, 39 saves from Mike Smith, and a 2-for-2 night from a power-play ranked last in the NHL, the Coyotes ended a 1-4-2 slide in March. Instead they moved two points behind Dallas for the Pacific Division lead and remained seventh by one point ahead of Colorado.
"The standings are very tight, nobody is going to help you out, everybody is in a battle and getting points out of every game, so it's in our hands," said Vermette before leaving for Calgary, where the Coyotes play Thursday night against the Flames -- one of three teams with 78 points, three behind the Coyotes.
"We have to earn it and find a way to get the points."
They did it the hard way against the Canucks.
Alexandre Burrows and Ryan Kesler, on the power play, staked Vancouver to a 2-0 lead in the first 10 minutes, but Rostislav Klesla converted a bad rebound less than two minutes later and Shane Doan jammed the puck past Roberto Luongo to tie it with 3:40 left in the period.
"It's not an easy position trailing by two right off the bat but I'm proud of the way we battled back and found a way to get the puck in the net," Vermette said. "Get right back in it and get some jump and feel better about yourself."
Oliver Ekman-Larsson and David Booth swapped power-play goals midway through the second period before Brule, playing in his hometown, put Phoenix ahead for good late in the period. A failed odd-man rush at one end led to another the other way that ended with a scramble down low; ex-Canuck Taylor Pyatt's sharp-angled shot went off the post, behind Luongo and into the net off the body of Brule as he was being shoved into the goal by a defender.
Vermette added a power-play goal 1:38 into the third for a two-goal lead, and it became the game-winner when Canucks defenseman Dan Hamhuis ended a 34-game goal drought by jamming home a rebound with 7:49 left to play.
"He's a clever player," coach Dave Tippett said of Vermette. "He plays both sides of the puck, but he has good skill that adds something to our group."
They needed it without Vrbata.
"We didn't make it easy on ourselves to go out and spot them a 2-0 lead," Tippett added. "Our group has been battling hard and then we lost Vrbata right before the game and (defenseman Adrian) Aucoin in the game, so I give our group a ton of credit, we found a way to hang around the game and get two points."
Aucoin, who left with a lower-body injury late in the second period, told NHL.com it wasn't serious, but didn't expect to play in Calgary on Thursday night.
Luongo finished with 28 saves for the Canucks, who are 2-4-2 in the last eight and have dropped six points behind St. Louis atop the Western Conference.
Coming off two full days off during a rare three-day break between games, the Canucks shook up their forward lines and defensive pairings. The first move paid off early and with four goals overall, but the latter contributed to five given up.
"I thought we generated a lot of offense, which is good, (but) we have to play a patient game," Luongo said. "That's the way we're going to win. Sometimes you've got to sacrifice some offense."
Burrows, dropped from a slumping first line with Daniel and Henrik Sedin to the third unit, banged in a Jannik Hansen feed on the doorstep 2:18 after the opening faceoff. The new-look third line drew a penalty that Kesler converted with a one-timer from the left faceoff dot after Henrik Sedin's cross-ice pass for his first point in nine games, avoiding matching his career-worst drought.
It was also Vancouver's first power play goal in six games and the second in 11 games, ending a 1-for-24 funk that dropped them to fourth in the NHL.
But the normally low-scoring Coyotes got on the board at 11:22 when Klesla was left alone in the slot after Luongo somehow played Vermette's sharp-angled shot back into the middle of the ice.
Doan tied it at 16:20 after a bad pinch led to a 2-on-1 for Phoenix – one of several odd-man rushes surrendered by the Canucks. The Coyotes' captain waited for defenseman Kevin Bieksa to slide through the play before cutting back through the crease, drawing Luongo with him and out of the net. He then cut back around Luongo's outstretched pad, below the goal line and jammed away before getting the puck through the goalie's stick and a pair of scrambling Canucks defensemen playing goalie in the crease.
It was the turning point, said Tippett, despite all that happened after that.
"It was led by Shane Doan tonight," he said. "That second goal epitomizes Shane and what he brings to our team. It was just a goal he wasn't going to be denied and the reaction on our bench showed that, the will he has to get the job done lifts our whole team. That was a huge turning point for our team.
"It got us back to even, but plays like that define who we are – working goals."
A power play that finally worked helped too.
After a couple good early stops from Smith, Phoenix took its first lead when Ekman-Larsson's power play point shot beat Luongo through the screen of former Canuck Raffi Torres at 7:58, ending a five-game power-play drought with just their third man-advantage goal in 11 games and 29 chances.
"We obviously gave up a couple of odd-man rushes too many tonight," Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said. "And penalty-killing wasn't able to get the job done."
Booth tied it at 12:22 by finishing off a give-and-go with Chris Higgins below the net by firing a shot over Smith's shoulder from the slot for another power-play goal, but Vermette's power-play goal early in the third – on a rebound of an Ekman-Larsson blast in tight – was all the Coyotes needed.
"We control our own destiny," Tippett said. "We control whether we make the playoffs or not, and games like this are huge for our group."