Coyotes get important win to close homestand

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The NHL schedule is filled with self-imposed mile markers to help teams gauge success. But there was nothing fake about the Coyotes’ need for four points on this brief homestand.

Phoenix has four days off before it embarks on a difficult road trip through western Canada — an eternity in this lockout-squeezed schedule and the longest break the team will enjoy the rest of the season. By the time the Coyotes take the ice again on Saturday in Edmonton, they will have likely slipped from their current perch in sixth place in the Western Conference standings. But Monday’s 4-0 win over Calgary helped ensure that the climb back up won’t be too steep.

“We had a great opportunity this week to jump on some teams that had played two games in two nights and we did what we had to do,” said center Antoine Vermette, who had a goal and an assist against the Flames. “It’s hard not to be happy with a 4-0 win. We’re getting there; we’ve been more consistent but there’s no question we have to keep getting better because everyone else will, too.”

The homestand took care of a couple recent, troubling issues. After starting the season hot, the offense had experienced an extended drought before netting nine goals in these two games, albeit against lesser foes in Columbus and Calgary.

The Coyotes also got better play from goalie Mike Smith, who posted his third shutout of the season to move into a tie with Nashville’s Pekka Rinne for the league lead, and his 11th (out of 22 total) as a Coyote.

“It probably looked a lot easier than it was,” said Smith, who stopped 30 shots. “It was kind of one of those games where they threw a lot of pucks in front and they were hitting bodies. They’re skilled hockey players. Give them credit. They played pretty well after the game they just played the night before.”

It’s difficult to gauge whether Smith has turned a corner, with shutouts in his last two games.

“Hopefully it’s like this,” Smith said, pointing upward, “and not like this,” he added, making the motion of a roller coaster.

The same hope holds true for this club, which has won six of its last eight games, but has also enjoyed five home games in that stretch, a few lesser opponents and some favorable turns of the schedule.

The good news for the Coyotes is that they should get center Matthew Lombardi and wing Radim Vrbata back for this road trip, with defenseman Derek Morris not far behind. They’ll also get their first extended string of practices after taking a day off on Tuesday.

“I think there’s some things to build on there,” said coach Dave Tippett, who still wants to see his team play faster. “It was a solid game throughout and we did a lot of good things in the game — things we can reinforce in practice this week and hopefully build some momentum going on the road.”

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