By Dave Vest
TAMPA BAY -- Don't look now front-runners, but the Coyotes have banked so many points lately they are starting to make a serious push for the top spot in the Western Conference.
Phoenix (43-22-5) upped its winning streak to a season-high six games on Tuesday night by beating the Tampa Bay Lightning, 2-1, at the St. Pete Times Forum.
Suddenly, the Coyotes have 91 points - just five fewer than San Jose, which sits atop the conference standings. Second-place Chicago, whom the Coyotes play Saturday and again next week, has 94 points.
“We’re just going to take it one game at a time," Coyotes Head Coach Dave Tippett said. "We have to continue to improve our game. We’re trying to get our game moving forward and there are circumstances and situations in every game that you can learn from and get better from and that’s what we’re trying to do right now. Obviously we’re trying to get wins, but we’re trying to get our team to play as well as it can.”
Frankly, it's difficult to imagine the Coyotes getting better results. Phoenix is 3-0-0 so far on this four-game trip through the Southeast Division and 6-0-0 since acquiring five new players before the NHL trade deadline.
With Tuesday's victory, the Coyotes tied the franchise record for wins in a season (43) with 12 games left. The 1984-85 Winnipeg Jets also won 43 games.
"For me, it's a skewed record because of the shootout situation," Tippett said. "(But) it's great for the players. It's great any time you can set a record. They'll have that in their back pocket for the rest of their lives."
Ilya Bryzgalov made 27 saves, and Vernon Fiddler and Matthew Lombardi scored goals less than two minutes apart in the first period on Tuesday as Phoenix dictated play in the first 20 minutes. Tampa Bay (28-29-12) rallied in the second period and pulled to within 2-1 when former Coyotes forward Todd Fedoruk knocked a rebound past Bryzgalov at 16:07.
But Bryzgalov made some big saves in the third period, especially during two Tampa Bay power plays, and the Coyotes, ahem, bolted the rink with two more points.
"It was kind of a workmanlike two points for us against a team that was desperate for points," Tippett said.
Lightning Head Coach Rick Tocchet was not pleased that his team slipped further out of the playoff race in the Eastern Conference.
“It’s tough because these are must-win games," Tocchet said. "We’re looking for anything: a puck going in off a guy’s face, something to get yourself and the team going, and other than the first 10 minutes in the first period we looked very, I don’t know, I would never question the team’s spirit and courage, but it looked very nervous or like nobody wanted the puck."
Trailing 2-0, Tampa Bay blew a terrific chance to score a goal at 12:46 of the second period. Coyotes goalie Ilya Bryzgalov left the net to play the puck behind the goal. Tampa Bay's Alex Tanguay confronted Bryzgalov, stole the puck from him and slid it toward teammate Paul Szczechura in front of Phoenix's half-empty net. Szczechura, however, could not get the puck on his stick cleanly for a shot, and Bryzgalov recovered.
• Center Martin Hanzal, who suffered a lower-body injury on Sunday at Atlanta and played only three shifts, returned to the lineup and played 18:14.
• Center Robert Lang missed his fifth consecutive game because of a lower-body injury.
• Forward Lee Stempniak assisted on Vernon Fiddler's goal to extend his point streak to six games since coming to the Coyotes in a trade with Toronto on March 3. Stempniak stole the puck behind the Tampa Bay net and swept a perfect pass to Fiddler in the low slot. Fiddler one-timed the pass past Lightning goalie Antero Niittymaki at 7:56 of the first period.
• The Coyotes are 22-1-0 in games in which they've led after the first period and 29-1-2 in games in which they've led after two periods. Moreover, Phoenix is 24-5-5 in one-goal games.
“We’ve got a team where everybody complements each other really well. We don’t have the star power that Tampa has, but we’ve got a bunch of guys that play real well, play hard, compete and believe in themselves.”
“There’s a lot of pride in that (tying the franchise record for wins in a season). You don’t play this game to lose and you want to bring something to the table to help the team win. I think everybody’s doing that and that’s why we’re so successful this year.”
“I don’t think we got enough traffic in front of them. You could see we weren’t getting second chances. We weren’t getting pucks through to the net and we weren’t getting second chances on them either.”
• March 16, 2010: PHX 2, TBL 1
• Nov. 16, 2009: TBL 4, PHX 1
1 - 0 PHX
2 - 0 PHX
2 - 1 PHX
Martin St. Louis