GLENDALE, Ariz. – Radim Vrbata has scored 185 NHL goals – 105 of them in four seasons as a Phoenix Coyote – by being a smart and skilled opportunist, pouncing on defensive mistakes and open patches of ice to pile up points for his team.
Right Wing - PHX
GOALS: 2 | ASST: 2 | PTS: 4
SOG: 39 | +/-: -2
But after scoring a career-high 35 goals during the regular season, one of every six the Coyotes scored in 2011-12 (210), the postseason has been a different story.
In 15 postseason games, Vrbata has only two goals and four points and is currently mired in a seven-game pointless streak. That's not uncommon for a player who has been historically streaky, but with his team down 3-1 against the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference Final, his celebrated timing currently couldn't be worse.
"Every time I feel like I might have a chance, somehow it is quickly taken away," said Vrbata, who ended the regular season with five goals in the last five games. "The perfect shot just isn't out there. The ones that are going in, they hit people or sticks and find a hole, that's the way it is.
"You have one good shift and you try to build on it and there is a penalty, or you get pinned in your zone and you can't keep it going. You feel like you have a good chance – finally, there it is – and you have two guys who want to block it. You just have to make sure you play good defense and contribute in other ways until you can make something happen."
Credit the Kings for rendering the Coyotes' "Prime Line" of Vrbata, Ray Whitney and Martin Hanzal invisible in this series, but their entire playoffs have been spotty at best – thanks in part to injures to Hanzal and Vrbata and one-game suspension to Hanzal. Coach Dave Tippett broke up the trio for Games 2 and 3, but reunited them in Sunday's 2-0 win in Game 4, hoping the line the team has leaned on all season would respond.
Whitney had a power-play assist and Vrbata had two shots on goal. But Tippett isn't shy when asked if he needs and expects more from a trio that collected 173 points in the regular season.
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"I thought they were better last game -- that was the best game in the series," Tippett said. "I thought Ray Whitney was around some chances. But you're absolutely right -- it's been a line that has been very strong for us throughout the season. Anything they can do to help chip in would be greatly appreciated."
His individual critique of Vrbata was even more pointed.
"The one thing Vrbata is, he's an opportunistic player," Tippett said. "When he's contributing, he capitalizes on them. He had a couple of opportunities right in the slot (in Game 4) – one that he bobbled, another one he missed the net. If those chances coming like that are an indication that his game is improving … the next step is to make some of those chances count."
Translation: Anytime, boys … and time is running out.
Vrbata knows his role is to score, even with all the extra attention he's receiving when he hits the ice. His 39 shots on goal this postseason is second to Shane Doan on the team, but his 5.1 scoring percentage is dead last.
"The last two years against Detroit, I got my points (four goals and nine points in 15 playoff games) but we didn't get out of the first round," Vrbata said. "If we win every game 1-0 and I don't get any goals, I'm fine as long as we have been winning.
"There are no set plays. It obviously helps if you have guys you are comfortable with, but I don't know if it matters. Right now, it's only about being in the right spot at the right time or having the puck bounce or go through people somehow."
The Coyotes have only eight goals in their last seven playoffs games and have allowed 167 more shots than they have taken in 15 postseason games. Doan, who broke through with a two-goal performance in Game 4, hopes Vrbata can show the form that produced 10 game-winning goals during the regular season.
"With him, he is such a pure goal scorer and he scores big goals for us. I'm sure it would be nice for him to get one or two tomorrow," Doan said. "He wants so badly to contribute. He's such a good guy and a big part of our team.
"But one guy struggling isn't the end of our team. We are fortunate to have so many guys we can count on."