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Vrbata stays hot, helps Coyotes defeat Panthers

by Alain Poupart

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Forward Radim Vrbata stayed hot while helping the Phoenix Coyotes continue their push for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Vrbata had a goal and two assists when the Coyotes defeated the Florida Panthers 3-1 at BB&T?Center on Tuesday night. He has four goals in the past three games and seven in his past 12.

"You score that one [goal] and you start feeling good about yourself,"?Vrbata said. "You get a couple of lucky bounces. It's like that for lots of guys."

Vrbata gave Phoenix a 3-0 lead at 5:52 of the third period when he converted a 2-on-1 after taking a cross-ice pass from Antoine Vermette. Vrbata scored the only goal in the shootout in the Coyotes' 4-3 victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday,

Mike Ribeiro and Oliver Ekman-Larsson also scored Tuesday for the Coyotes, and goalie Mike Smith made 31 saves after stopping 28 shots against Tampa Bay. Phoenix won consecutive road games for the first time since Nov. 27 and Dec. 3.

The Coyotes swept a back-to-back set for the second time this season; the other instance came Oct. 10-11 when they defeated the Detroit Red Wings and Philadelphia Flyers.

"You never know what you're going to get on a back-to-back,"???Smith said. "It's a tough turnaround. You're coming in a building where the atmosphere isn't the best, but they're a team that can burn you if you're sleepy in the first period. I???thought we did a really good job to come out and show some spunk and get on the forecheck, which is a big strength of our team. Lots of credit to our guys."

Phoenix (31-24-11) remained one point behind the Dallas Stars for the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference. The Stars, who defeated the St. Louis Blues 3-2 in overtime Tuesday, have a game in hand.

Florida's Brandon Pirri scored on the power play, his first goal since being acquired in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks on March 2. Roberto Luongo made 23 saves for the Panthers (24-34-7).

The game was the first between the teams since Dec. 20, 2011, when Vrbata scored the game-winner in a 2-1 victory. The teams play again March 20 in Phoenix.

Luongo made three starts against the Coyotes this season for the Vancouver Canucks, going 2-0-1 with a 2.52 goals-against average.

"I've played them a ton out West," Luongo said. "They're a very disciplined team, they're patient, they wait for the other team to make mistakes, and obviously they're fighting for a playoff spot right now, every game is important to them. We saw that desperation tonight, guys blocking shots, and finding the net. They did whatever it took to win."

Phoenix has won four of five; the defeat was a 3-2 road loss to the Washington Capitals on Saturday in a game they led 2-0 after two periods.

The Coyotes found themselves with another 2-0 lead after 40 minutes and were able to hang on this time despite being outshot 11-3 in the third period.

"I???thought we started the game very well,"???coach Dave Tippett said. "We had good energy. When you've had a hard go here on the road and a couple of late nights, you want to get a good start. We were able to get a lead. You could tell fatigue was an issue the last 10 or 12 minutes, but I???like the way our guys got through it."

Ribeiro opened the scoring with 2:17 left in the first period on a power play. As he was skating across the front of the net, he tipped Keith Yandle's slap shot from the top of the right circle.

Phoenix's second goal also came off a shot from the point. Ekman-Larsson scored when his wrist shot found its way past Luongo with Coyotes forward Lauri Korpikoski and Panthers defenseman Ed Jovanovski jostling for position in front of the net.

"We worked hard,"???Luongo said. "We threw a lot of pucks at the net, their goalie played well. They got a lucky bounce on the first one. It went off the stick; I don't think he meant to deflect it. I've just got to find a way to make an extra save somewhere, so right now that sums it up. The boys worked really hard tonight."

Pirri scored at 8:54 of the third period when his slap shot went off the sticks of two Phoenix players and up to beat Smith to the glove side. Pirri had a chance to cut the lead with 5:14 left, but Smith made a sliding save on his one-timer.

"You need your goaltender to be solid,"?????????Tippett said. "That's who we are, that's any team; if their goaltending is solid, it gives them a chance every night. Where we are in the standings and the desperation we should be playing with, your goaltender has to take a big part of that. But it's great to see everybody else chip in."

Each team lost a forward to injury. Phoenix's Martin Erat left the game in the first period with an upper-body injury. Florida's Sean Bergenheim sustained a lower-body injury in the second period; he skipped the morning skate for what Panthers coach Peter Horachek called a maintenance day.

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