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GAME DAY: Phoenix

by Rob Mixer / Columbus Blue Jackets





Whenever you play the Phoenix Coyotes, one thing is abundantly clear: if you're going to beat them, you have to out-work them. There's no other method for success.

Under the regime of coach Dave Tippett, the Coyotes seemingly feed off all the challenges -- both on and off the ice -- that have been fed in their direction. Ownership troubles? No problem, they'll just make the playoffs amidst a cloud of uncertainty and narrowly miss out on a chance at the Stanley Cup Final. Losing players to free agency? No sweat, they'll find players to step up and play their way in order to get results.

It also helps that Mike Smith, a bargain pick-up on the free agent market two summers ago, has been one of the NHL's top goaltenders since joining the Coyotes and was the backbone of their playoff run last year. Despite missing players to injury this season, and particularly so on defense, the Coyotes are still chugging along and have managed to stay in the playoff hunt. But is that really much of a surprise?

Entering tonight's game at Arena (the second meeting in Glendale between the Blue Jackets and Coyotes this season), the home side has had an up-and-down month of February. After an overtime loss to Dallas to start the month, the Coyotes won back-to-back games against Dallas and Minnesota but were handled on home ice by the Chicago Blackhawks two nights later.

But two more wins came in the wake of a disappointing loss to Chicago, most recently a 3-2 overtime win in Colorado that came with some good fortune on the game-winning goal. Phoenix fell victim to Pekka Rinne's third shutout of the season two nights ago in Nashville, but did not play a bad game overall. Few teams get more from less than the Coyotes, and it's something they thrive on.

Defense is strong for the Coyotes with Oliver Ekman-Larsson leading the way on the back end, and at age 21, he's one of the brightest young stars in the game. He's joined on the blue line by All-Star Keith Yandle, veterans Zbynek Michalek and Derek Morris along with former Blue Jacket Rostislav Klesla. It's an experienced and gritty group in front of Smith that has helped the Coyotes become of the the NHL's toughest defensive teams.

- Fedor Tyutin leads the Blue Jackets in scoring and also scored the team's only goal in a 5-1 loss to the Coyotes last month at Arena.

- After several chances in recent weeks, Nick Foligno scored his first goal since opening night in Friday's game against the Los Angeles Kings. He has been a key cog in a very consistent line with Brandon Dubinsky and Matt Calvert.

- It's possible that Nick Drazenovic draws into the lineup tonight, especially in a back-to-back situation. The 26-year-old center was recalled from Springfield as injury insurance on the road trip, and a lot could also depend on the status of Artem Anisimov. John Moore is healthy to play but was a scratch last night vs. Los Angeles, and he's also a player available for selection this evening.

- CBJ Radio play-play-play announcer George Matthews will call his 1,000th game TONIGHT, and be honored Feb. 26. READ MORE

Radim Vrbata


2013 STATS: 3-8-11, 14 GP

The Coyotes' offense is a different level of dangerous when the streaky Vrbata is lighting the lamp, and when he's on his game, there are few players better at shooting the puck. Vrbata, 31, has enjoyed the better years of his career in Phoenix and scored 35 goals in 77 games last season.

COLUMBUS: Cam Atkinson (lower body, IR); Artem Anisimov(lower body, questionable)


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