As they fight for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, the Phoenix Coyotes are getting healthier with less than a month left in the regular season.
With Martin Hanzal back, the Coyotes might have Martin Erat as well as they face a Florida Panthers team that hopes to play the spoiler role after beating one of the West’s top clubs.
Phoenix looks to strengthen its hold on the second wild-card spot with its fourth straight home victory and seventh in nine games overall Thursday night against the Panthers.
After missing seven games due to a lower-body injury, Hanzal gave the Coyotes (33-25-11) a lift in his return Monday. He recorded an assist while winning nine of 14 faceoffs in 17 minutes of a 4-3 road win over Los Angeles.
Hanzal, who sat out 13 games because of the injury, has a career-best 38 points. He has two goals and an assist in four career meetings with the Panthers.
"I was very pleasantly surprised," coach Dave Tippett told the team’s official website. "For missing as much time as he had, he came in and was a real strong player for us … He’s obviously a big piece of the puzzle."
Tippett’s squad could be adding another key member up front with Erat likely to be a game-time decision after missing the past three due to an upper-body injury. Erat, hurt in a 3-1 win at Florida on March 11, has one goal in four games since Phoenix acquired him from Washington earlier this month.
If he’s able to play, the Coyotes would get their first look at an all-Czech line of Radim Vrbata, Hanzal and Erat. Vrbata has scored four times in his last five games against the Panthers (26-35-8) dating to his time with Tampa Bay.
Keith Yandle scored the tying goal midway through the third period Monday and Jeff Halpern had the go-ahead tally with 3:05 left for Phoenix, which won its second in a row to take over possession of the second wild card.
Mike Smith overcame an illness to stop 36 shots for the Coyotes, who lead Dallas by two points. Smith has gone 6-2-0 with a 1.99 goals-against average in his last eight starts, including last week’s 31-save effort against Florida.
Phoenix has scored 22 goals in its last seven games after managing 11 over its previous seven.
The Panthers have allowed 223 goals, among the most in the NHL. They needed Roberto Luongo’s 52 saves to come away with a 3-2 victory over San Jose in the opener of a four-game trip Tuesday.
”I haven’t seen a performance like that in a while,” said center Quinton Howden, who had his third goal in four games since being recalled from the AHL.
Luongo finished with 23 saves in the last meeting with the Coyotes.
Brandon Pirri had Florida’s lone tally in that game, and provided a goal and an assist in a 17-second span of the second period Tuesday. Scottie Upshall closed out the period with a key insurance goal, giving him three goals over his last four games.
The Panthers have dropped four of the past five meetings with the Coyotes.