By Jerry Brown | NHL.com Correspondent
GLENDALE -- The Coyotes are right in the thick of the NHL's wild, wild West – where the standings don't change by the day, they flip-flop minute-to-minute.
The Coyotes (37-26-12) began Thursday looking up at a playoff spot. But after red-hot Raffi Torres notched a goal and an assist, and goalie Mike Smith celebrated his 30th birthday by making 39 saves for his 100th NHL win, Phoenix had jumped from ninth place to third in the standings with a 3-2 win over the Colorado Avalanche at Jobing.com Arena.
Phoenix's stay in that perch lasted about 20 minutes. By the time they had finished with their post-game interviews, Los Angeles had beaten St. Louis, 1-0 in a shootout, and taken over the Pacific Division lead. The Coyotes had dropped back to seventh in a race where six teams separated by three points are fighting for three postseason chairs before the music stops on April 7.
"It's a roller coaster. You watch the standings before you go to bed and you get up and look at them again in the morning," Coyotes Head Coach Dave Tippett said. "That's where we are right now. Seven games left and it's going to be a dogfight right to the end. It's fun."
Again, that's in the eye of the beholder. Colorado (40-31-5) dropped from seventh to ninth on Thursday after losing in regulation for just the fourth time in its last 15 games. But tomorrow is another day.
"At this point in the season you can't dwell on a loss. There is just too much at stake with the next game," Avs Head Coach Joe Sacco said.
Daymond Langkow and Kyle Chipchura also scored for the Coyotes, who played without suspended captain Shane Doan but got a huge lift from the makeshift line of Torres, Langkow and Gilbert Brule (two assists).
"We just kept cycling the puck and working hard, nothing flashy, and kept using the back of the net," said Torres, who has six goals in the last 12 games at a time when many other Coyotes scorers have struggled. "I'm shooting to score right now, not just shooting to get pucks on net. I'm thinking back of the net right now."
Ryan O'Reilly spoiled Smith's shutout bid with his 18th goal and Paul Stastny added another with 5:39 left in regulation for Colorado, which stormed into the playoff picture behind the stellar play of goalie Semyon Varlamov – who had a 1.68 goals-against average during the 11-3-1 surge.
Varlamov made 22 saves against the Coyotes but allowed two of the first six shots he saw to get past him.
The Coyotes are 28-4-5 when scoring the first goal this season but had opened the scoring only once in their first 11 games this month. But despite playing without Doan, defenseman Adrian Aucoin and forward Taylor Pyatt, Phoenix dominated the first 20 minutes to take a two-goal lead.
Langkow started and completed the first goal with sheer hustle. Gobbling up a giveaway behind the Colorado net, Langkow centered the puck to the front of the crease for Torres. Varlamov got enough of the puck to stop it just short of the goal line, but Torres and Langkow both dove toward the puck and Langkow nudged it across at 3:24 for a rare early goal.
After Smith protected the lead with saves on Stastny and Jamie McGinn, it happened again. Ray Whitney corralled a turnover in the Phoenix zone and turned it into a four-on-one rush the other way. Whitney feathered a pass over a charging Steve Downie that Chipchura tucked behind Varlamov with a backhand at 15:43.
"Their guy, I don't know what he was thinking stepping up on 'Whit' and he just put it though," said Chipchura, who missed 14 games with an upper-body injury before returning Tuesday. "As soon as I got to the red line I knew I was going to get a breakaway out of it."
It was the 70th point of the season for the 39-year-old Whitney, who now has a point in 23 of his last 27 games and is four shy of becoming the 80th player in NHL history to reach 1,000 in a career.
Torres made it 3-0 at 16:55 of the second period (see KEY MOMENT below).
But the Avs refused to roll over, outshooting the Coyotes 17-7 in the third period.
Smith stopped O'Reilly from point-blank range in the second period, but O'Reilly got his revenge 4:28 into the third by coming out from behind the Phoenix net, whirling and ripping a quick wrist shot over Smith for his team-leading 54th point of the season. The Avs made it a one-goal game just under 10 minutes later when Stastny deflected home a David Jones shot, putting the crowd of 14,938 on pins and needles the rest of the way.
"We would like to have kept it 3-0, but they pushed really hard," Chipchura said. "They got desperate and I think we did a really good job keeping our composure when it was 3-2, and 'Smitty' was his usual self again.”
Tippett enjoyed not having to watch his team come back from a deficit for a change.
“It’s nice to not chase a game," Tippett said. "I thought we had some guys that looked like their energy levels weren’t were they should have been. I don’t know if that’s because of the hard game against Dallas (on Tuesday) or just a little bit of the injury factor that’s going around our group right now. But we got out to a lead. I thought we didn’t make enough plays in the third but we got away with it. We’ll take the points and move on.”
► EDITOR'S NOTE: Dave Vest of phoenixcoyotes.com edited this story and compiled this recap.
Leading 2-0 late in the second period, Coyotes forward Raffi Torres
scored what turned out to be the game-winning goal to cap a voracious Phoenix shift that pinned Colorado in its zone.
set up Boyd Gordon
for a shot that Avs goalie Semyon Varlamov stopped, but the long rebound dribbled out to Torres, who hammered in a one-timer to put the Coyotes in what appeared to be complete command.
► Click here
to see the KEY MOMENT
|Photo by Norm Hall.
• Goalie Mike Smith
stopped 39 saves to earn the 100th victory of his career. With a career-high 33 wins, Smith has recorded the most wins by a netminder in the Pacific Division and fourth-most in the Western Conference.
• Left wing Ray Whitney
extended his point streak to six games by assisting on Kyle Chipchura
's goal. Whitney now has 996 points in his NHL career.
• The Coyotes are 12-5-2 vs. the five teams - Calgary, Columbus, Edmonton, Minnesota and Vancouver - in the Northwest Division.
• Defenseman Derek Morris
played in his 998th NHL game.
• Right wing Radim Vrbata
, who leads the team with 30 goals, returned to the lineup after missing Tuesday's game because of illness. Vrbata played 20:50 and took three shots on goal.
• The Coyotes scratched Adrian Aucoin
(lower-body injury), Shane Doan
(suspension), Marc-Antoine Pouliot
, Taylor Pyatt
(upper-body injury), David Schlemko
, and Chris Summers
• The Coyotes' next game is Saturday vs. the San Jose Sharks at HP Pavilion. The puck drops at 7 p.m. (Arizona time). The game can be seen on Fox Sports Arizona and can be heard on Money Radio 1510 (AM).