By Dave Vest
The Coyotes will play their first game of 2012 tonight against the St. Louis Blues at the Scottrade Center. The puck drops at 6 p.m. (Arizona time).
Phoenix (19-16-4), which last played on New Year’s Eve when it defeated the Minnesota Wild, 4-2, is 5-3-1 against St. Louis in the last nine games between the teams.
The Coyotes on Tuesday removed starting goalie Mike Smith
from the injured reserve list. Smith, who missed the past six games because of a lower-body injury, will start tonight.
Forward Radim Vrbata
scored twice within 2:01 in Saturday’s win and leads the team with 18 goals. After scoring just once in his first nine games, Vrbata has produced 17 goals in his last 30 games.
The Coyotes again will play minus injured centers Martin Hanzal
and Boyd Gordon
. Phoenix also will be without forward Raffi Torres
, whom the NHL suspended for two games on Monday for charging Wild defenseman Nate Prosser on Saturday.
Phoenix is looking for a fresh start after posting a 6-9-1 record in December.
"January's where everybody realizes this is crunch time," defenseman Derek Morris
told NHL.com. "You've got to crank it up a notch. Games are going to get quicker, they're going to get more important. ... You don't want to get behind and start chasing. Where we're at, we've got to find a way to win games now so when crunch times rolls around, you don't want to have to scrape out the last couple points because they're harder to get."
The Blues (21-12-5) have posted a 15-5-5 record under new Head Coach Ken Hitchcock, but they lost three games in a row to close the month of December and scored just three goals in those losses.
|Photo by Getty Images.
St. Louis has won 14 of its 19 home games this season. Only the Detroit Red Wings have pleased the home crowd more (15-2-1).
Center David Backes leads the Blues with 25 points despite not leading the team in goals or assists.
St. Louis has been winning games this season despite consistently failing on its power play. The Blues rank 30th in the NHL in power-play efficiency at 12.4 percent (16 for 129). St. Louis likely won't get many chances to improve that stat tonight because the Coyotes lead the NHL in fewest penalty minutes per game (8.5)
Like Torres, Blues defenseman Ian Cole will miss tonight’s game because of a league-mandated suspension. Cole earned a three-game punishment for delivering an illegal check to the head of Detroit's Justin Abdelkader on Saturday.