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Coyotes squeak past Panthers on first-period goals

by Jerry Brown

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- It had been more than four months since the Phoenix Coyotes strung together three wins in a row. Their timing in reaching the elusive three-game winning streak couldn't have been better.

Radim Vrbata and Antoine Vermette scored first-period goals, and Mike Smith made them stand up with 22 saves to lead the Coyotes to their third win in a row, a 2-1 victory against the Florida Panthers on Thursday.

"They all can't be masterpieces," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said with a smile. "We got up two goals and we won. Let's just leave it at that and take the points.

"I guess it was kind of a boring game, so we wanted to make it a little interesting."

Down 2-0, the Panthers did make it interesting when Scott Gomez split two Coyotes and beat Smith with a wrist shot from between the circles with 4:07 left to make it a one-goal game.

But the Coyotes held on and now own their longest winning streak since they won five straight from Oct. 26 through Nov. 5 -- back when they were 11-3-2 and fighting for the best record in the NHL.

Phoenix has seven wins in its past nine games -- all with Smith in goal -- and has moved four points clear of the Dallas Stars for the Western Conference's second wild-card spot into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Dallas lost 4-2 to the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday.

Thursday marked the first time all three of the Coyotes' Czech forwards -- Martin Erat, Martin Hanzal and Vrbata -- were healthy for a game since Erat was acquired in a trade with the Washington Capitals on March 4. They played together on a line, and after Florida's Jimmy Hayes was penalized for hooking 1:56 into the game, two of the three new linemates combined to get Phoenix on the board.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson's shot from the high point caught Hanzal on the left instep in the slot. But the puck bounced right to Vrbata, who beat Florida goalie Roberto Luongo at 2:56 for his 20th goal of the season and fifth in the past eight games. It's the fourth time Vrbata has reached the 20-goal mark in his career, all with the Coyotes.

"It would have been nice if we could have scored a third one and a fourth one to put it away, but right now the points are what it's all about," Vrbata said. "The way to get to the playoffs is to keep winning. We have 12 games left and we have to keep it going."

Luongo made 20 saves for the Panthers, who were 2-0-1 in their past three games. The loss was Florida's second in nine days to Phoenix.

Vrbata's goal was the 31st allowed by Florida's penalty kill on the road this season, the most in the NHL.

The Coyotes didn't muster a shot on goal for the next 14 minutes, but doubled the lead when Vermette connected for his team-leading 23rd goal with 1:22 left in the first.

"We have to take to take care of what's in front of us. We need to win period after period and we've been doing that," Vermette said. "We know it's not going to come easy. There is no easy game in this league. That team isn't going to make (the playoffs), but they worked hard and gave us a great battle."

With Luongo trapped by a battle in the crease between Phoenix's Mikkel Boedker and Florida's Dylan Olsen, Vermette pushed home his own rebound to give Phoenix a 2-0 lead for the fifth time in the past 10 games.

Florida coach Peter Horachek felt goalie interference should have nullified Vermette's goal.

"I think they missed it," he said. "He thought it was a penalty on us (Olsen for cross-checking), and that was the thing he was calling. When you don't have the ability to look at the video for that situation, it makes it kind of hard … but obviously not the right call."

Luongo felt it was an obvious goalie-interference call.

"I felt like I was already in the blue (paint) once the contact was made, so it is tough for me to do my job when I end up in the corner," he said. "It's frustrating when you want to give yourself a chance to make a save, but when you are taken out of the play, you can't really do anything about it."

Tippett felt the right call was made.

"Boedker wouldn't have been in there if he wouldn't have got pushed," he said.

It stayed 2-0 until Gomez ruined Smith's bid for a fourth shutout in the past 21 games with his second goal of the season and his first since opening night.

"The guys didn't quit; they kept pushing back, and we had 11 scoring chances in the third," Horachek said. "We had good opportunities, but Smith played well and kept them out."

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