COLUMBUS, Ohio - A day before adjourning for their Christmas break, the Phoenix Coyotes decided to give themselves an early present Tuesday.
It wasn't wrapped so nicely. It didn't have the nicest ribbons. But at least it wasn't another measly tie. And it was lovely in their book.
Avoiding the dubious honor of becoming the first NHL team to come home from a four-game road trip undefeated and winless, the Coyotes used David Tanabe's power-play goal 1:52 into the third period to squeak out a 2-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena. The victory gave Phoenix 11 wins, 11 losses and 11 ties and an overtime loss as it draws a line in the sand and moves to its new arena on Saturday night in Glendale. The idea all year has been to collect enough points during a murderous early schedule to make all those upcoming home games matter. And with 34 points in 34 games, the Coyotes sit just a few points out of a playoff spot before breaking out the eggnog and uncorking the champagne in Glendale.
“We placed a major importance on this game,'' Phoenix coach Bob Francis said. “We wanted to go home .500. We said all along if we could stay at .500 at this point we'd give ourselves a chance. Sure enough, we're standing there right now. Now it's in our hands.''
Columbus hasn't won a game since Dec. 2 and is 0-5-2-1 since then. The Blue Jackets haven't won a road game all season and are at the bottom of the NHL standings. But they gave a tired Coyotes team, playing for the third time in four nights, all they could handle, and Phoenix needed another stellar effort from goalie Sean Burke (298th career win) to complete a 1-0-3 road trip in style.
“We had the right guys in goal the whole trip,'' Francis said. “Boosh (Brian Boucher) battled and battled and got us ties in Los Angeles and Nashville and Sean made all the big stops when we needed them in St. Louis and Columbus. The way we used our goaltenders and the way they performed was right on.''
After watching his team play to draws on the first three stops of the trip, Francis made some big changes. He benched veteran left wing Brian Savage (one goal in 15 games) and demoted Mike Sillinger (scoreless in nine games) to the fourth line, putting rookie Jeff Taffe on the top line alongside Daymond Langkow and Shane Doan.
The tweaks didn't help early. The Coyotes had only 11 shots in the first 30 minutes and were lucky to get out of a one-sided first period scoreless. But it took only 2:11 of the second period for the Blue Jackets to break through.
Budding superstar Rick Nash was left all alone in the crease, and the 19-year-old tipped a Derrick Walser shot past Burke. It was Nash's 21st goal of the season, tying Atlanta’s 20-year-old Ilya Kovalchuk for the NHL lead.
Needing a spark in the worst way, the Coyotes got one from the “Czech Mix'' line of Ladislav Nagy, Jan Hrdina and Branko Radivojevic at 13:24. Defenseman Cale Hulse hustled to the boards to hold in a clearing attempt and his shot deflected off two players before Nagy slipped the puck to a wide open Hrdina.
Hrdina scored his fifth goal, putting the puck past Columbus goalie Fred Brathwaite and the game was tied.
Then the Phoenix power play, which has produced nine goals in the last nine games, finally put the Coyotes in front. Doan pushed the puck to the top of the point and Tanabe blasted the puck through traffic for his fifth goal of the season to make sure Phoenix didn't have to settle for just one point again.