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Coyotes jump into 7th by blanking Sharks 2-0

by Jerry Brown
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Almost six months ago, in a nightmarish debut with his new team, Phoenix goalie Mike Smith was riddled for six goals in the first 39 minutes by the San Jose Sharks.

Since then, Smith has been San Jose's worst nightmare. And if the Sharks don't wake up soon, they might miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in eight years.

Smith made 15 of his 38 saves in a brilliant first period and shut out San Jose for the third time this season, blanking the Sharks 2-0 in a huge game for both teams at Arena Thursday.  In five games against San Jose since that season-opening debacle, Smith has allowed just six goals and recorded half of his six shutouts for the season.

"I think that first game of the year scared the heck out of everyone because we were so bad," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said. "Since then we've been all right, so I'll take that. Mike Smith gave us a chance in the first and as the game went on and we got the lead, we played more solid."

Radim Vrbata, mired in a long scoring slump and out of the lineup for four of the last five games due to an intense allergic reaction to penicillin, broke out with his 31st and 32nd goals – both spoon-fed by linemate Ray Whitney, whose two assists give him 999 points in his NHL career.

Smith did the rest, pushing the Coyotes back into seventh place in the Western Conference playoff scramble -- and pushing the Sharks out of the top eight. With 89 points, Phoenix is one ahead of eighth-place Los Angeles and even with Dallas for the Pacific Division lead, but the Coyotes have played one more game.

The Kings and Sharks both have 88 points, but the Kings own the last playoff spot because they've played one fewer game.

"It was the biggest game of the season," San Jose captain Joe Thornton said. "Smith played well, but it was another heartbreaking loss."

The Coyotes went 4-1-1 against San Jose this season and are now 12-6-5 in the Pacific Division – compared to an 8-11-1 record for the Sharks. San Jose lost to Anaheim and Phoenix on back-to-back nights – teams they were a combined 3-9-0 against this season – and are in danger of having the second-longest active postseason streak in the league come to an end.

"We had a ton of opportunities, some really good looks at the net, but it didn't go in for us," said San Jose coach Todd McLellan, whose team came to Glendale after a 3-1 loss at Anaheim on Wednesday. "They capitalized on their chances, we didn't. That's the game. I keep saying that we've got to leave these (losses) behind and move on, but with four left we better make some hay quick."

The Sharks peppered Smith in the first 20 minutes, but he stopped everything -- making huge stops on Martin Havlat, Torrey Mitchell, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski, among others. San Jose goalie Antti Niemi (31 saves) made a big save as well, stopping Mikkel Boedker on a breakaway with 4:30 left by poking the puck away with the knob of his stick.

But the Coyotes came out strong to start the second period, earning the game's first power play when Patrick Marleau was called for boarding Rostislav Klesla at 3:20. The NHL's worst power-play unit, which was 1-for-19 in its last six games and 0-for-16 at home since March 3 against Columbus, then came up big.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson put a drive into traffic and off teammate Martin Hanzal before the puck dropped in the slot. Whitney tried a shot that was stopped, but the puck came right back to him and he pushed it to Vrbata, who was all alone at the left post with a gaping net to shoot at.

Vrbata's goal was his first since Feb. 21 against Los Angeles -- he had been scoreless in 12 games and missed five others because of the reaction that caused joint pain all over his body and continued even during the morning skate.

"I don't think it's over yet," Vrbata said. "I hope tomorrow I wake up feeling fine. Right now if it's good enough to play, I will play. But I never know -- one day I feel good and the next you wake up and the pain is unbearable. Even this morning, I was having trouble holding my stick."

It stayed 1-0 until the third period when Phoenix -- now 29-1-0 when leading after two periods this season while allowing only 54 third-period goals – doubled its lead.  Pavelski's shot hit Ekman-Larsson and Whitney turned the play the other way with Vrbata on a 2-on-1. Whitney feathered the puck over defenseman Dan Boyle's stick and Vrbata whipped it home at 8:17.

"I just looked for Vrbata's stick and if there is something in the way you have to go over or under it," said Whitney, who will become the 79th player in NHL history to reach 1,000 points with his next one. "This time going over it seemed to work."

The Sharks have dominated the Pacific Division for years, but now find themselves in fourth place with four games to go and possibly needing to run the table to reach the playoffs.

"We don't have much of an option, the last two games have put us in a hole," forward Ryane Clowe said. "We can't afford to lose any games, so if that means (going) 4-0, then yeah."
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