By Dave Vest
ATLANTA – Just call him "The Closer."
Coyotes defenseman Adrian Aucoin scored the game-deciding shootout goal in the fourth round on Sunday to lead Phoenix to a 3-2 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers at Philips Arena. Aucoin now is 4 for 4 in shootouts and all four goals have clinched Phoenix victories.
Asked why he waited until the fourth round to use Aucoin in the shootout, Coyotes Head Coach Dave Tippett chuckled and said: "He's the closer. He's done a very good job at it. Why change now? When it's time to get out of here ... we just put him in and away we go." (Click here to listen to Tippett's press conference.)
Coyotes backup goalie Jason LaBarbera, making his first start since Feb. 5, stopped 39 shots in 65 minutes and three of four in the shootout to help secure Phoenix's fifth consecutive victory.
Matthew Lombardi and Lee Stempniak scored goals in regulation for the Coyotes, who blew 1-0 and 2-1 leads before pulling out another two points.
The Coyotes (42-22-5), who played less than 24 hours earlier at Carolina, looked tired and disorganized in the first period; both of their penalties within the first 10 minutes of the game were for too many men on the ice.
LaBarbera, however, kept Phoenix in the game with stellar goaltending. He stopped all 10 shots he faced in the first 20 minutes and that inspired his teammates to wake up.
Lombardi deflected a shot by defenseman Keith Yandle past Thrashers goalie Ondrej Pavelec at 5:14 of the second period to give Phoenix a 1-0 lead.
Atlanta's Maxim Afinogenov tied the score at 1 by notching a power-play goal 34 seconds into the third period.
The Coyotes regained the lead 10:05 later when Stempniak poked a rebound between Pavelec's legs late in a power play. The goal was Stempniak's sixth in five games since coming to the Coyotes in a trade with Toronto on March 3.
"It's been a really good fit for me," said Stempniak, who also dived and disrupted an Atlanta breakaway in the overtime period. "... These are easy guys to live with. We've developed some good chemistry."
Atlanta's Nik Antropov knotted the score again by beating LaBarbera from the left side at 13:38 of the third period while Coyotes captain Shane Doan sat in the penalty box for holding.
Aucoin easily could have been the goat instead of the hero after committing a cross-checking penalty on Thrashers forward Clarke MacArthur with 2:36 left in the game. The Thrashers (28-29-11), eagerly looking to avoid a six-game losing streak, took six shots on goal during the power play but LaBarbera stopped them all.
LaBarbera got some help from the posts and the crossbar on several occasions throughout the game.
"The game shouldn't have been that close, but we couldn't put one in the net," Thrashers Head Coach John Anderson told reporters. "That's been a problem lately, but our power play did score two goals, so that's a bit of a plus."
Needing to score a goal in the third round to continue the shootout, the Coyotes got one from forward Radim Vrbata, who beat Thrashers goalie Ondrej Pavelec with a backhanded shot up high. Coyotes goalie Jason LaBarbera and defenseman Adrian Aucoin took care of the rest in the fourth round.
• The Coyotes have 42 victories, one shy of tying the franchise mark set by Winnipeg in 1984-85.
• Center Martin Hanzal suffered a lower-body injury early in the first period and played only three shifts. After the game, Head Coach Dave Tippett said he did not think Hanzal's injury was serious.
• Defenseman Mathieu Schneider made his debut with the Coyotes and played 21:21. He took five shots on goal but did not score. Schneider, 40, was acquired in a trade from Vancouver on March 3.
• Goalie Jason LaBarbera has won his past three starts and stopped 91 of 96 shots in those starts. (Click here to listen to LaBarbera's post-game remarks.)
• Defenseman Keith Yandle had two assists. It was his seventh multi-point game of the season.
• The Coyotes are 5-1-0 at Philips Arena since the Thrashers entered the NHL in 1999.
• The Coyotes scratched Robert Lang, Sami Lepisto, Petr Prucha, Viktor Tikhonov and Jim Vandermeer. Atlanta scratched Evgeny Artyukhin, Zach Bogosian, Evander Kane, Vyacheslav Kozlov, and Christoph Schubert.
“I go with the theory that d-men kind of are good at shootouts because no one really knows where they're going (with the puck). Sometimes, the d-men don't even know where we're going.”
“It's been probably the funnest year I've had at the NHL level.... Everybody has contributed. Every body on every night can contribute. And that's the best part. We're not relying on one or two or three guys.”
“Overall, it was a pretty good game. We just came up short, but basically we needed the two (points). We played a good game. We have to build on that.”
• March 14, 2010: PHX 3, ATL 2 (SO)