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Coyotes blank Blackhawks to regain playoff spot

by Jerry Brown

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- On a night set aside to honor past and present Olympians, two Phoenix Coyotes who were overlooked for the 2014 Sochi Olympics provided all the offense necessary to move their team back into a Western Conference playoff spot

With 10 members of the 1980 United States "Miracle on Ice" team among the regular season-record crowd of 17,525 at Arena, American Keith Yandle and Radim Vrbata of the Czech Republic scored power-play goals and goalie Mike Smith made 30 saves for his 26th career shutout in a 2-0 win against the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday.

Yandle scored 1:09 into the game and assisted on Vrbata's 5-on-3 power-play goal in the second period after penalties to Brandon Saad and Michal Rozsival left the Chicago bench livid.

"When you play a team like this in a game that's this important for us, we knew we needed to play well," said Yandle, who was bitterly disappointed not to be named to the U.S. team. "Today was one of our better games all over the ice. Our special teams were good and Smitty was there all night."

The five Coyotes and 10 Blackhawks who will play in Sochi were given a pregame sendoff. Smith, one of the Coyotes' five Olympians, then turned in his third career shutout against the Blackhawks, including two of the last three in regular-season play. Chicago was blanked for the first time in 126 regular-season games dating back to 2011-12.

"It's the time of the season right now where it's 'go' time,'' said Smith, who has stopped 90 of 93 shots in his last three games. "You need to bring your 'A' a game against a team like that, so it's a great opportunity to rise to the occasion in an exciting atmosphere."

Playing well against good teams hasn't been the problem. The Coyotes (27-20-10) closed five-game homestand with a 3-2-0 record that saw them beat three playoff teams that are a combined 58 games over .500 (Los Angeles Kings, Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago) while losing to two non-playoff teams that are a combined 14 games under. 500 (Buffalo Sabres and Dallas Stars).

"That's the game that has made us successful the past few years. This year we play like that for a few games but not consistently," Vrbata said. "We've beat good teams lately -- Chicago, Pittsburgh, L.A. We play hard because we are afraid we'll be embarrassed if we don't show up. But we have to play that way every night or we won't get anywhere."

The win gave Phoenix 64 points and moved them past the slumping Vancouver Canucks into the second wild-card playoff berth in the West -- the first time they've held a playoff spot since Jan. 7. They complete their pre-Olympic schedule with a return match against the Stars in Dallas on Saturday.

Corey Crawford made 24 saves for the Blackhawks (35-11-14), who reached the break for the 2014 Sochi Olympics with 84 points and went 3-1-2 while playing their last six games away from home. They return to action with a road game against the New York Rangers on Feb. 27 before hosting the Pittsburgh Penguins at Soldier Field on March 1 in the final game of the Coors Light NHL Stadium Series.

"It's a disappointing game," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "We can't start like that and put ourselves in a hole right off the bat. We battled back and they made some saves on us in the latter half of the game."

Phoenix won despite playing without Martin Hanzal (illness) and with five defensemen after Derek Morris left the game with an upper-body injury in the first period. Hanzal traveled to Texas with the team after the game; Morris did not.

The Coyotes have a power-play goal in 13 of their past 16 games. But they hadn't had two in the same game since Vrbata and Antoine Vermette scored in a 4-3 overtime win on Dec. 21 against the Ottawa Senators

Chicago picked up the first of two first-period penalties when Brandon Bollig was called for tripping Shane Doan 1:01 into the game, and the Coyotes needed only nine seconds to capitalize. Antoine Vermette won the faceoff back to Mikkel Boedker, who fed Yandle at the point. With Doan providing a screen, Yandle unleashed a shot that beat Crawford to the far post for his seventh goal of the season.

Vermette's assist extended his points streak to a career-best nine games.

The Blackhawks were held to seven shots in the period, but Smith had to be sharp on several of them. He made a big save on Kris Versteeg with six minutes left and stopped Saad with his glove and Duncan Keith with his pad late period.

Each team had 14 shots in the second period, but Chicago penalties were the difference again.

At 17:46, Saad charged toward the Phoenix net with the puck and barreled over Smith, who went sprawling into his net. Saad was called for goalie interference, and as the Blackhawks protested the call, Michal Rozsival was called for unsportsmanlike conduct to give Phoenix a 5-on-3 advantage.

It took 42 seconds for Mike Ribeiro to set up Vrbata between the circles for a hard wrist shot that beat Crawford between the pads. Vrbata's 14th goal gave the Coyotes some breathing room and left Quenneville unhappy.

"I didn't like the whole sequence there," he said. " I didn't like any of the three calls -- or non-calls."

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