Coyotes move into Pacific Division lead

JOHN MARSHALL AP Sports Writer Published:

GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) -- Mikkel Boedker walked through the locker room with a championship belt slung over his shoulder, recognition for the nifty goal that secured the Phoenix Coyotes' latest win.

His team, after another fantastic February, earned its own reward: First in the Pacific Division and a rush of momentum heading into the final five weeks of the season.

Back to their tight-checking style and the confidence building with each win, the Coyotes roared through February, nearly running the table as they raced up the standings.

"When you do things right and everybody contributes, you have a good chance of success," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. "We got some momentum and kind of rallied around it this month."

That month has been good to Phoenix.

When the calendar has flipped to February each of the past three seasons, the Coyotes have gone on a big run.

In 2009-10, Phoenix won six straight games and eight of 10, a stretch -- which actually started in January -- that propelled it to the playoffs despite being run by the NHL. A similar spurt came last season, when the Coyotes won eight straight and again made it to the postseason.

Still ownerless, they did it again this season, earning 23 of a possible 24 points while getting at least one in 12 straight games to go from 12th in the West to fifth -- technically third because they lead the division -- before Thursday night's game against Calgary.

The Coyotes have done it by sticking to Tippett's don't-beat-yourself style, getting good goaltending, steady defense and opportunistic scoring. And, after struggling in close games early in the season, Phoenix has found a way to finish, winning nine of its last 10 one-goal games after losing 10 straight.

"That was a heck of a month by any team's standards," forward Ray Whitney said. "We realize that if we work hard, we can compete with the big boys."

Goalie Mike Smith has had a lot to do with it.

The past two seasons, Ilya Bryzgalov led the Coyotes, rarely allowing easy goals, making the superb saves when the defense broke down in front of him. With Bryzgalov now struggling in Philadelphia after being traded to the Flyers in the offseason, Smith has been the impetus for this year's February run.

Inconsistent at times early in the season, Smith has been one of the NHL's best goalies over the past month, setting a career high and a franchise record with 11 straight wins, longest in the league this season. The 29-year-old had consecutive shutouts against Chicago and the Los Angeles Kings on Feb. 11 and 16, stretching his scoreless streak to a career-high 171 minutes over three games.

Smith had a 1.42 goals-against average and a .952 save percentage in the month, and is among the NHL's leaders in four different categories, including wins (29) and goals-against (2.24)

"Obviously, we've done some good things," Smith said. "We really have improved as a group, as a team and this month (February) has been huge for us, moved us drastically up the standings."

The key will be to not let up.

Phoenix kept its momentum each of the last two seasons to make the playoffs and hopes to do it again after posting the best month, winning percentage-wise, in franchise history.

The Coyotes picked up center Antoine Vermette from Columbus for a draft pick last week, but were non-players at the trade deadline, fearful of spoiling the continuity of a team that came within a Feb. 13 shootout loss to Vancouver of a perfect month.

They closed out the month with a shootout win over the West-leading Canucks and hope to keep it going now that the calendar has flipped a page.

"We don't just start new," Tippett said. "We continue to build confidence, build momentum and build our team game for the stretch drive. If we secure a playoff spot, hopefully we're playing well, going into it and that's the whole mindset. March 1 shouldn't change our mindset."