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Coyotes edge Panthers for third win in a row

The SportsXchange

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The last time the Phoenix Coyotes won three consecutive games, children were eating Halloween candy and the college basketball season had not even started.

With the Florida Panthers in town Thursday and a chance to grab a firm hold of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, Phoenix finally did the deed.

Right winger Radim Vrbata and center Antoine Vermette scored first-period goals, and goaltender Mike Smith made 22 saves as the Coyotes beat the Panthers 2-1 in a sluggish game at Arena.

Phoenix (34-25-11) owns its first three-game winning streak since Oct. 31-Nov. 5.

"They all can't be masterpieces," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said, smiling. "We got up two goals and we won. Let's just leave it at that."

The win moved Phoenix four points ahead of Dallas in the race for eighth place in the conference. The Stars, who lost at Philadelphia on Thursday, still have a game in hand.

The Coyotes also pulled within four points of the seventh-place Minnesota Wild, who lost in overtime at New Jersey on Thursday.

"It's a good help, the other teams not winning, but I think we want to get there with us playing well and us winning," Vrbata said. "There's still 12 games left, so we have to keep this streak going as long as we can."

Phoenix took charge quickly when Vrbata knocked home a rebound of defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson's shot on the power play just 2:56 into the game. Ekman-Larsson's shot pinballed off the leg of Coyotes center Martin Hanzal, who was screening goalie Roberto Luongo, and right onto Vrbata's stick.

Vermette widened the lead on a goal that drew the ire of Luongo and the Panthers' bench. Florida defenseman Dylan Olsen shoved Coyotes right winger Mikkel Boedker into Luongo, and Boedker fell on top of the goalie. With the entire net open, Vermette tapped in his team-leading 23rd goal of the season.

"It's frustrating because you want to give yourself a chance to make a save," said Luongo, who made 20 saves. "On a play like when you totally get taken out of the play, you really can't do much about it."

In the other goal, Smith continued his torrid play since the Olympic break by posting his seventh win in nine starts. He was not tested often, but the Panthers had some quality chances, including defenseman Colby Robak's rocket from the high slot that Smith snared with his glove hand early in the third period.

Phoenix won for the fifth time in six games and the seventh time in nine.

"Great timing," Vermette said. "Valuable points in the standings, and we'll certainly take that."

Florida finally got on the board when center Scott Gomez scored with 4:08 left in the game on a fluttering wrist shot that dipped underneath Smith, but the Panthers couldn't get the equalizer.

"We should score earlier," Florida defenseman Brian Campbell quipped. "We get chances. We get power plays. Our power play has been better, but tonight, for whatever reason, we didn't make smart plays and we weren't prepared."

NOTES: The Coyotes' Czech line of LW Martin Erat, C Martin Hanzal and RW Radim Vrbata made its debut Thursday. Erat was acquired at the trade deadline from Washington while Hanzal was out with a lower-body injury. Erat missed the past three games with a head injury. The three had never played on a line together despite all three taking part in various international competitions for the Czech Republic. ... Florida entered the game with the worst road penalty-killing unit in the NHL (74.6 percent). Phoenix scored on its first power-play attempt. ... Coyotes G Mike Smith entered play with the second-highest save percentage in the NHL since Feb. 1 (.936). ... Thursday's game marked the Panthers' first game at Arena since Dec. 4, 2010. ... Coyotes C Antoine Vermette's first-period goal was his first goal in eight games. Vermette leads the Coyotes with 23 goals.

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