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Coyotes top struggling Wild 4-2

by Dan Myers /
ST. PAUL -- For 51 minutes Saturday night, the Minnesota Wild looked too much like the team that just lost eight games in a row and not enough like the energized bunch that just snapped that streak two nights earlier.??

Radim Vrbata scored goals on consecutive shifts for Phoenix as the Coyotes defeated the Wild 4-2 in front of 19,297 -- the largest crowd of the season at the Xcel Energy Center and sixth-largest in franchise history.??????

It was a team effort by the injury-riddled Coyotes, who are missing starting goaltender Mike Smith and centers Martin Hanzal and Boyd Gordon.

"Different players have different roles and some have a little more than others," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. "But we need everybody to chip in and that's what I thought we had tonight. That's how we have to win."

Trailing 3-1 with just over half of the third period remaining, Matt Cullen was hauled down on a breakaway and awarded a penalty shot. He took advantage, going crossbar and in to narrow the score at 3-2.  The goal gave the Wild life, but Vrbata's two goals in a 2:01 span earlier in the period proved too much to overcome.

"I was a little bit nervous about this game, because of the emotional game last game," Minnesota coach Mike Yeo said. "There was a lot of emotion in that last game, and you finally get the win, and you're afraid you're gonna come back the next day and have a bit of a letdown. We weren't good tonight. I'm not sure why."

Both of Vrbata's goals were things of beauty. The go-ahead goal was a pinpoint shot from a sharp angle near the left circle that beat goalie Niklas Backstrom glove-side high at 4:15, breaking a 1-1 tie.

"I was going to shoot it hard as soon as I got it, but I was scared there was too much traffic," Vrbata said. "So I just held onto it and a little flipper there and it found its way in."??????

On his next shift, Vrbata charged into the zone with Kyle Chipchura, took a pass from him at the right circle and swooped around the net before burying a wrist shot over a sprawling Backstrom. The goals were Vrbata's 17th and 18th of the season.

"I didn't expect to get it back, so when I had the puck at first, I had nothing to shoot at," Vrbata said.??????

After Cullen's goal made it 3-2, goaltender Curtis McElhinney took over -- robbing Cal Clutterbuck on a one-timer from the slot with four minutes remaining. Two minutes after that, he stoned Dany Heatley on a similar play to preserve the one-goal lead. Once trailing by double-digits in shots in the third period, Minnesota pulled Backstrom with just over a minute to play and eventually took a one-shot edge before Ray Whitney's empty-net goal with 18.9 seconds remaining evened the shots at 30-30 and secured the win.

"They got the penalty shot goal, and that really gave them some momentum," Tippett said. "But our guys hung in there, our goaltender gave us some saves we really needed and we got the win."

For McElhinney, it was his first victory of the season after being called up from AHL Portland on Monday. The fifth-year veteran -- playing for his fourth NHL team -- said it's been a "fun" year despite having played all but the last week in the minors and that he's tried to make the best of his increased playing time in the AHL.

"I got that chance to play tonight and I was excited," said McElhinney, who made his first NHL start of the season as Tippett gave Jason LaBarbera the night off. "That third period after the penalty shot, things really started to pick up, just a lot of things coming at the net. It was nice to hold it off."

The victory snapped a four-game losing streak for Phoenix -- with all of those losses by one goal.

"We've been a pretty good team the last couple of years in one-goal games and for whatever reason, the last little bit, that's gotten away from us," Tippett said.

"We know how to play in these games. Lately, it seems, every game has been a one-goal game," Vrbata said. "It's good to be on the winning side."??????????????????

Minnesota struck first at 6:19 of the second period, thanks to some hard work by Nick Johnson in front. Johnson jammed at a puck in the crease until it shook loose to a crashing Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who slammed home his eighth of the season. Cullen was also credited with an assist. It was Bouchard's fourth goal in the Wild's last six games and put him within two of reaching the 100-goal plateau for his career.

Following the goal, the Coyotes controlled play for much of the remainder of the second period. A vast majority of the action took place in front of Backstrom, and if not for him, the Coyotes might have been able to build a lead.??????????????????

Phoenix tied the game at 15:02 with some help from Minnesota defenseman Jared Spurgeon, who returned to the Wild lineup after missing two games with a lower-body injury.??????????????????With Greg Zanon serving a holding penalty, the Coyotes buzzed the net. A pass from the left of Backstrom was deflected high in the air above traffic at the top of the crease. Spurgeon, standing near the left post, tried to bat the puck out of the air and wide -- instead, he accidentally put it into his own net. After a video review, Daymond Langkow was credited with his eighth of the season, tying the game at 1-1.

"That's a Daymond Langkow goal. He gets those all the time," Coyotes captain Shane Doan said with a chuckle. "It was huge for us, not only to score, but to just get some momentum on our power play. The last couple of games, it's almost taken away our momentum, so it was big to get something out of it." ??????????????????

Phoenix outshot Minnesota 13-8 in the second period and carried more than a minute of power-play time into the third.??????????????????

Neither team was especially sharp over the first 20 minutes, as Phoenix outshot Minnesota 10-8 in a period where much of the game was played in the neutral zone. The Coyotes had one opportunity with the man advantage in the first, but the power play yielded no scoring chances.

"It's been tough sledding as of late," Doan said. "We have to try and string something together but you can't start it without the first one and it was good to get that one."

The Wild started December like a lion, entering the month with the NHL's best record and winning their first five games. But the final three weeks have seen Minnesota fall to fifth in the Western Conference and finish 1-6-3 in their final 10 games.

"I'm ready to close out December," Yeo said. "Bring on January." 
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