GLENDALE – The Coyotes left Arizona today for a crucial three-game road trip to Western Canada that will most likely define their season.
I know, I know. You’ve heard that line before. But with only 10 games left in the regular season it’s definitely make or break time for this team - and all the other teams jockeying for playoff position in the Western Conference standings.
Thanks to a season-long three–game winning streak, the Coyotes boarded today’s flight a confident group with a much-needed swagger. They also departed minus goaltender Chad Johnson, whom the team assigned to American Hockey League earlier in the day.
|Jason LaBarbera |
Johnson’s departure means Jason LaBarbera has recovered from what he called a “freaky” medical condition that sidelined him for the past two games.
LaBarbera was supposed to have started Thursday’s game vs. Detroit but was scratched after the morning skate – and again on Saturday – because of what was described as an infected lymph node that made it difficult for him to swallow and breathe properly.
“It was really weird,” LaBarbera said. “I’d never had that before. It was a little freaky at first because I didn’t know what the heck it was… Luckily I play in the NHL and we have good doctors around and I have access to them.”
The team’s medical staff quickly helped LaBarbera manage the condition and he accompanied the team to Vancouver on Sunday to serve as Mike Smith’s backup in Monday’s game vs. the Canucks.
Smith, of course, returned to the lineup on Saturday night after missing six games because of an upper-body injury. In his first game back he blanked Colorado 4-0 on 24 saves for his NHL-leading fifth shutout.
Head Coach Dave Tippett liked what he saw from Smith against the Avalanche.
“(He) really looked solid,” Tippett said. “He moved the puck well outside the net (and his) feet looked really good in the net, so that's a good sign. We looked at him Thursday morning. If he would have been ready (to play) we would have played him, but he needed an extra day. It worked out well.”
Smith showed fans he was completely engaged in Saturday’s lopsided game by taking exception to Avalanche forward Cody McLeod when he poked at the puck under Smith’s glove after Smith had frozen it in the second period. Smith grabbed McLeod’s stick, slammed it to the ice and then tossed it aside.
|Photo by Getty Images. |
“(Tippett) told me never to break my stick over the post again, so after I pulled it out of his hand and saw it I thought, 'I’d better miss with this,'” Smith said with a smile. “It's the competitive spirit in me. Just like anyone else I get frustrated out there, get emotional. Hopefully it's in a good way.”
He added, “That’s my game and if I don’t play like that, then I don’t play up to my capabilities. I didn’t want to go into tonight and be tentative. I wanted to get back in and do what I do and when I play my best, I do that.”
Coyotes captain Shane Doan, for one, is glad Smith has returned to the lineup at this critical time. He’s now hoping injured defenseman Zbynek Michalek can return soon, too.
“It’s going to be huge getting everybody back in the lineup, and we need everybody,” Doan said. “That’s kind of what we’ve talked as a group all along is what makes us good is we count on so many guys.”
Johnson heads back to the AHL after posting a much-needed win vs. Detroit on Thursday in which he stopped 34 of 36 shots. His performance helped the Coyotes win all three games on their most recent homestand to get back into the playoff picture. All three goalies – Smith, LaBarbera and Johnson - posted a win on the homestand.
Smith’s shutout on Saturday night was his fifth of the season and his 13th in 94 games with the Coyotes.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Follow Dave Vest on Twitter at @davest4yotes