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Healthy, refocused Coyotes on another February roll

by Jerry Brown
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Who looks forward to the month of February on the calendar more than florists, candy confectioners and greeting card companies?

It could be the Phoenix Coyotes.

In the past few years, no NHL team is annually happier to see the shadow of Groundhog Day and the feeling of romance in the air more than the Coyotes. Two years ago, Phoenix wrapped up a run of eight wins in nine games before the Olympic break to position themselves for a franchise-record 50 wins. Last year, the Coyotes won eight straight from Feb. 5-22, collecting 16 points in 17 days and putting them back in the playoff hunt.

It's happening again.


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With wins over San Jose, Detroit, Dallas and a 2-1 overtime squeaker Thursday against Calgary, the Coyotes have stacked four wins and eight points in six days heading into Saturday, which features an emotional Jeremy Roenick Ring of Honor night against the Chicago Blackhawks.
A season-long winning streak to open their favorite month has pushed the Coyotes from 12th to eighth place in the standings and just four points behind the Pacific Division leaders San Jose -- who have four games in hand, but a brutal nine-game road trip beginning next week.
"We knew we had to start winning or we would be out," said center Martin Hanzal, who had combined with wingers Ray Whitney and Radim Vrbata to collected 24 points in the last seven games and led the offensive charge. "Winning one and losing one wasn't going to do it. We put ourselves in a tough spot and no one was going to help us. We had to do it."

The tumblers are falling into place at the right time. Hanzal and Boyd Gordon have returned from injury to give Phoenix strength up the middle and firm up their line combinations. Mike Smith, healthy and rested after a much-needed week off, is back to being what he was during the first six weeks of the season -- one of the best goalies in the League.

 And a brutal schedule that had the team playing 21 of 32 games on the road from mid-November to mid-January has now flipped to a home-friendly slate that offer no more than two straight road games for the rest of the campaign.

"When we were playing without Marty and [Gordon] and playing all those road games, it was really tough," said Vrbata, who leads the NHL with 18 road goals and leads the Coyotes with 25 tallies -- two shy of his career high. "We had people playing with different lines, different positions and it was tough. Now everyone is back to more comfortable roles and we have a sense of urgency because we are running out of time."

 After losing 4-2 to Anaheim in the first game back from the All-Star Break, the Coyotes had three straight days to practice, regroup, and refocus on what makes them successful as a team. High-tempo, relentless forechecking, and good defense from the goal line out had been missing. The Coyotes outscored the Sharks, Red Wings and Stars 13-5 before squeaking out an ugly win against the Flames on Shane Doan's power-play goal in overtime Thursday.

 Smith, who has played a career-high 42 games and was starting to show fatigue, benefitted from playing just two games in two weeks around the break has allowed three goals in three games, stopping 79 of 82 shots. A little luck doesn't hurt either -- the Coyotes played Detroit without injured goalie Jimmy Howard, Calgary without a resting Miikka Kiprusoff and were the recipients of some good bounces against the Sharks.

Boyd Gordon
Center - PHX
GOALS: 6 | ASST: 13 | PTS: 19
SOG: 77 | +/-: 11
Gordon has been an unsung hero all season. Brought in to replace the popular and versatile Vernon Fiddler, Gordon now centers the second line between Lauri Korpikoski and Doan among his other duties. He has won 57 percent of his face-offs this season -- tops on the team -- and is a key component of a Phoenix penalty kill that has climbed back into the top 10 in the League after collapsing during his seven-game absence due to injury.

"The best way to tell how much we need Boyd Gordon is to see how we played when he was gone," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said.

With a third of the season remaining, the Western Conference is up for grabs. Heading into Friday, five points separated seventh and 12th place. The Coyotes have designs on climbing back among the top four, but looking right behind them is an unsettling sight.
"Now you're back where you want to be, but at the same time we can't be content with that," Doan said. "We're not looking to just crawl … we have to keep pushing and see how far with can take this."

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