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Coyotes survive Riga challenge for 3-1 victory

by Shawn P. Roarke
RIGA, Latvia -- Despite the odds stacked against them, the Phoenix Coyotes found a way to persevere in their final preseason game -- an impressive 3-1 victory against KHL power Dinamo Riga.

In doing so, the Coyotes believe they are ready for the 2010-11 NHL season, which opens for them with the 2010 Compuware NHL Premiere series against Boston this weekend in Prague.

"Every win gives you a little more confidence," Petr Prucha, who scored the go-ahead goal on the power play with 2 seconds left in the second period, told"We will use this in the first game. I think we are ready now."

Phoenix got an NHL-caliber test Wednesday night at a hostile Arena Riga, which was packed with 10,520 crazily passionate Riga supporters who were hoping to see another team from the Kontinental Hockey League spring an upset.

But, it was not to be as Prucha broke a tense 1-1 tie with his power-play goal to send Phoenix on to victory.

"I thought it was a good showing by our team," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said. "Our guys got some important work in and now we are ready for Boston."

Prucha, part of an all-Czech forward line, was set up beautifully by his teammates for the go-ahead goal. Martin Hanzal confidently lugged the puck into the attacking zone before dishing to Radim Vrbata, who feathered the puck to Prucha for the one-timer past goalie Chris Holt.

Wednesday's game was a rollicking affair throughout, as the Latvian fans treated this more as a Stanley Cup Playoff game instead of a mere exhibition.
"It was an unbelievable atmosphere," Coyotes captain Shane Doan said.

"Arguably, they are the best fans in the world with the way they support their teams. It was a great experience."

The already passionate fans here were emboldened by the fact that SKA St. Petersburg, a KHL opponent, had handed the Carolina Hurricanes a 5-3 defeat just two nights earlier. So not only did the Coyotes have a hostile crowd and the weight of expectations working against them, but they also had to deal with some pretty telling physical duress -- the club arrived in Europe just 48 hours earlier and had just one full practice under its belt in the past four days. The Coyotes skated briefly in Prague on Wednesday morning  before flying to Riga for the game.

Yet Phoenix found a way to subdue a talented club -- more than half of Riga's players play for Latvia's national team -- that was playing for the pride of a hockey-mad nation.

"This was good preparation for us," Coyotes defenseman Ed Jovanovski said. "It was kind of difficult starting the day practicing in Prague and then flying out here and playing on the bigger ice, but we found a way to get it done."

Just as a tense, and relatively even, first period was about to expire, Taylor Pyatt gave Phoenix its first lead by slamming Lee Stempniak's rebound past Riga goaltender Mikael Tellqvist, who played three seasons as a backup in Phoenix.

That same duo combined in the third period to give Phoenix some breathing room, only this time it was Stempniak getting the goal with an assist to Pyatt. That goal came against Holt, who replaced Tellqvist midway through the second period.

Phoenix also switched goalies midway through the game. Starter Ilya Bryzgalov did not allow a goal during his 30-minute stint. Jason LaBarbera, who came in at the 10-minute mark of the second, was not as lucky, conceding a goal on just the third shot he faced. Former NHLer Mark Hartigan slammed a rebound past the prone LaBarbera to tie the game at 1-1 and send the Riga supporters into delirium.

Canadian Brock Trotter, who played for AHL Hamilton last season, set up Hartigan's goal with a nifty move behind the net, banking the puck of the back of the cage to disengage from his defender and then feed puck in front.

Trotter was Riga's best player for much of the game, generating several quality chances.

But LaBarbera was perfect after his early misstep, allowing Phoenix to escape with a win that should boost the team's confidence heading into the weekend showdown with Boston.

"That's a big win for us," Stempniak told "Our guys did a lot of things right tonight."

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