GLENDALE, Ariz. — No sacrifice is too great for Coyotes defenseman (and soon-to-be Czech Republic Olympian) Zbynek Michalek.
"That’s not my game," said Michalek, who is still sporting that same toothless smile until the end of the season when he goes in for repairs. "I just go out there and do what I can to win hockey games. There’s nothing fancy about my game. Everybody knows how I play. I’m not going to change just because I’ve been hurt or because there’s Olympics."
He might as well have been singing coach Dave Tippett’s favorite song. On a team that has lacked grit, hard play and sacrifice for much of the season, it was no coincidence that Michalek’s return coincided with Mike Smith’s first shutout, the best performance of the year by the penalty- killing unit and an old-time Coyotes 1-0 victory at Jobing.com Arena.
"He’s the type of player that he gets in, he gives you everything he’s got, and that’s what we’re looking for right now," Tippett said. "We’re looking for players to max out and give us everything they’ve got to help us win. He’s a big part of that identity on our team."
Michalek got only 16 minutes and 2 seconds of ice time — part of the pregame plan to work him back slowly — but he was a vital piece on a penalty-killing unit (6:06 of ice time) that killed off all seven Canucks power plays, and he set the tone for the rest of the team.
"I can’t say enough about Z," Smith said. "He just makes simple plays and good plays at good times. He blocks shots, just does all the hard things that it takes to win games. Other guys see him doing that and they want to get engaged, too."
New attitude helps Smith notch first shutout of year. FULL STORY >>
NEXT: DEVILS AT COYOTES
When: Saturday, 6 p.m. Where: Jobing.com Arena, Glendale TV: FOX Sports Arizona Radio: Arizona Sports 98.7 FM Records: New Jersey 20-18-11; Phoenix 22-16-9
Scouting the Devils: Like Phoenix, New Jersey is battling for one of the final playoff spots with about 10 other clubs. Offense has been a problem for the Devils, whose 113 goals rank 26th in the NHL. New Jersey didn’t do itself any favors by opening the season with seven straight losses, but the Devils have resumed their defensive ways of late, allowing just 19 goals over their last 10 games. G Cory Schneider’s numbers (1.91 GAA, .924 SP) are better than those of 41-year-old legend Martin Brodeur (2.33, .905), but the two have essentially split the goaltending duties, with Schneider having played four of the past five games. Speaking of old legends, 41-year-old F Jaromir Jagr leads the Devils with 38 points (14 goals), but he is the only Devil with more than 25 points. The Devils are 0-8 in shootouts this season and have lost 12 in a row dating back to last season, which breaks the previous record set by the Red Wings last month. Devils shooters are 1 for 25 in shootouts this season.
Michalek said he felt better than he thought he would after the long layoff and there was no point during the game when the trainers told Tippett to rein him in. He also reported no issues the day after, a regular litmus test when returning from injuries.
"Maybe more penalty-kill time than we thought before the game, but that’s just how the game went," Michalek said, laughing. "I’m happy that I contributed to the win. This is what I do. That’s my role: Be good defensively and be good on the penalty kill. I’m just doing my job."
Michalek said earlier this month that he’s not sure his injured hip — the same one he had surgery on — will ever be 100 percent this season. He didn’t elaborate, but he admits there is some concern about playing in the Olympics next month rather than resting it.
"I have maybe three weeks before the Olympics and have enough games to kind of judge if it’s good enough or not," he said. "I went through this in December and it didn’t go the way I wanted, obviously. Hopefully, this time around, it’s going to be different."
Tippett has made it clear he wants his players to relish the honor and opportunity of playing in the Olympics, but the risk of playing vs. resting has to be weighing on the coaching and management staffs’ minds, especially after watching Michalek do what he does best on Thursday — two days earlier than Tippett expected him back.
"That was a very nice surprise, him saying he wanted to jump in," Tippett said Thursday. "Tonight, he became a valuable player for us."
Defenseman Rusty Klesla cleared waivers Friday for the second time this season and will be assigned to the Coyotes’ AHL affiliate in Portland, Maine.
Since suffering a concussion in the preseason on a hit from the Kings’ Jordan Nolan, Klesla’s game hasn’t been the same. He’s lacked the physical, gritty play that defined him in seasons past, a style that made him such a valuable player to the team.
He has appeared tentative, often playing defense with his hands and stick rather than his body, and he has struggled on the penalty-killing unit. There is still time for Klesla to regain his old form in the minors, and the Coyotes could certainly use the player of old in their playoff push, but Klesla will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and it is unlikely the Coyotes will bring him back.
There was speculation that center Martin Hanzal might face a suspension for a series of cross-checks in Thursday’s game, the last which earned him a double minor for high-sticking Vancouver’s David Booth.
But Hanzal got off what with what is essentially a slap on the wrist — a $5,000 fine. Hanzal was suspended for two games earlier this season for charging Oilers defenseman Jeff Petry.