Radim Vrbata's return from broken foot fortifies Coyotes for playoff push.
By CRAIG MORGAN FS Arizona
Radim Vrbata has been skating a lot since he suffered a cracked bone in his foot Feb. 16 against Columbus. The idea was to test the foot continually to see what it could take, but the approach wasn't working, so Vrbata took a different tack last week.
"I took a couple days off not skating," he said Tuesday night in Los Angeles. "And once I got back it was a totally different feeling than those first three and a half weeks when every time I would go out there I would feel pain."
After 14 games on the shelf, Vrbata returned to the lineup in Tuesday's 3-2 loss to the Kings at Staples Center. For a team that needs every soldier over the season's final month as it looks to make a playoff push, that was welcome news.
Vrbata clearly wasn't himself yet, but there were signs that he could be soon.
"He jumped in and got a couple good chances,"
Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. "Usually he buries those, but hopefully those will be coming in his game."
Vrbata believes they will once he works out some kinks. He also understands how vital his presence will be down the stretch.
"It's not easy to miss four weeks and then jump into it right away when you don't have team practices," he said. "But we have, I don't know how many games left in the season, so there's no time to sit out any more."
Zbynek Michalek expected back in the lineup next week, the Coyotes might finally be healthy as they approach the home stretch. And with Tuesday's effort – the result not withstanding – they might rediscovered the blue print that led to success last season.
"The frustration that we played with tonight, we can turn that energy into a positive energy," Tippett said Tuesday in L.A. "If we play like we did tonight, we'll get our fair share of wins."
THREE KEY OPPONENT STATS
13.8: There are a number of skilled NHL teams whose power-play success rate belies their skill. The
Canucks may be the poster team for that group. The Canucks' power play is ranked 28th in the league, ahead of only Carolina and Buffalo. Not having Ryan Kesler for much of the season certainly hurts, but with the symbiotic Sedins around, this is still perplexing.
47.2: That's the Canucks' faceoff winning percentage – the fourth-worst mark in the league. Puck possession starts with faceoffs, and given the Coyotes' prowess in the circles – centers
Boyd Gordon and
Antoine Vermette are among the top five in the NHL in faceoff winning percentage – this should provide Phoenix with an immediate advantage.
Which goalie? Neither of Vancouver's goaltenders has separated himself from the other this season. Cory Schneider was tabbed as the starter to open the season but is 7-5-3 with a 2.59 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage. Roberto Luongo, 7-4-3 with a 2.47 GAA and a .904 save percentage, has allowed 12 goals during a 1-2 stretch, but he has a 1.47 GAA and a shutout while winning two straight at Phoenix.
THREE THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW
Northwest no longer a given: The Canucks have won their division four straight seasons and appeared headed to a fifth earlier this season. But Kesler's injury and uncertain return, coupled with a dismal power play and the surging Minnesota Wild have put that (and even a playoff berth) in question this season. Heading into Wednesday's games, Vancouver was in sixth in the conference, just four points ahead of the ninth-place Coyotes. The Canucks also trail the Wild in the Northwest Division after losing to Minnesota 3-1 in Vancouver on Monday. The Sedin twins are still just 32, with plenty of good hockey left, but there are some analysts who wonder if this current group of Canucks might have missed its window of opportunity. If things go decidedly south, either coach Alain Vigneault or GM Mike Gillis could pay the ultimate price.
OEL's value: According to the quality-of-competition metrics at behindthenet.com, no defenseman (with a mininum of 10 games played) has faced tougher opponents this season than
Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who is also starting the majority of his non-neutral zone shifts in the defensive zone. OEL is playing the role of shutdown defenseman, ranking 14th in the league among all skaters in ice time per game (25:06). In spite of that role, he's still putting up big offensive numbers (17 points) and plays in all situations, including both special teams. Now you know why the Coyotes gave him a six-year, $33 million extension last week.
Picks to click: F Steve Sullivan has 30 points (15 goals) in 39 career games against Vancouver. F Antoine Vermette has 15 points in 19 career games against the Canucks.
For the Canucks, C Ryan Kesler (foot) and LW David Booth (ankle) are out. For the Coyotes, D Zbynek Michalek (foot) and F David Moss (lower body) are day to day.
Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter