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Phoenix Coyotes pad wild card lead with win over Florida Panthers

The Phoenix Coyotes defeated the Florida Panthers 2-1 on Thursday night.

There was little drama or theatrics and no white-knuckle, stomach-churning finish on Thursday night as the Phoenix Coyotes took care of business and beat a team far below them in the standings, the Florida Panthers.

The Coyotes found themselves in a familiar position early on, holding a 2-0 lead. Unlike a handful of prior games where the Coyotes let two-goal leads slip away, Phoenix avoided a catastrophic collapse and maintained the lead throughout the game, defeating the Panthers 2-1 in a rather unspectacular affair.

"They all can't be masterpieces," coach Dave Tippett said. "We got up two goals and we won so let's just leave it at that and take the points."

Phoenix's struggles holding a lead are well documented.

In nine games prior to Thursday, the Desert Dogs held a 2-0 lead four times. The Coyotes blew that lead in all four games and won only two.

The Coyotes bucked that trend Thursday night, partly due to the performance of their hot goaltender.

Mike Smith continued his elite play since the beginning of February making 22 saves on 23 shots for his 27th win of the season.

"Right up until that goal he let in it was unbelievable and then a little bit after that. He's making key saves at key times," Tippett said. "But a funny game, not a lot of chances against but when there was key saves and that's what we need out of him."

In Smith's last 14 games, he has posted a .936 save percentage. His play has carried the Coyotes back into a playoff position as the Yotes now turn their focus to padding their point total rather than playing catch up.

By puck drop, the Coyotes knew their dance partner for the final wild card spot, the Dallas Stars, suffered their fourth loss in a row. The Coyotes extended their lead over the Stars to four points with a dozen games remaining in the season.

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

Thursday marked the much-awaited debut of the new "Czech Line" as Martin Erat, Martin Hanzal and Vrbata were all at full health and started the game together.

While much of the pre-game debate surrounding Phoenix's top line involved choosing a new nickname, their on-ice impact was felt right away.

Phoenix started strong with a two-goal first period. Vrbata opened the scoring 2:56 into the game of the power play with his 20th goal of the season. Hanzal earned himself an assist after the puck bounced off him and on to Vrbata's stick. Less than three minutes into the game, two-thirds of the "Czech Line" had already recorded a point.

Tippett said the line will take some time to gel but felt Thursday's game was a difficult one to make proclamations from..

Antoine Vermette followed up with a goal in the waning minutes of the first period with his team-leading 23rd of the season.

That pesky second period came and went without much fanfare and more importantly for the Coyotes, without allowing any goals. The period's only fireworks came from a scrap between Chris Summers and Joey Crabb after the Panthers forward laid a big hit on Lauri Korpikoski.

The home fans had a bit of a scare late in the third period when Scott Gomez cut the Coyotes' lead in half with an innocent looking wrist shot that found it's way past Smith.

However, Florida was unable to generate a high quality scoring chance and the Coyotes took home their third victory in a row.

Vrbata characterized "desperation" as the key component of his team's current winning streak.

"We know where we are in the standings and we need every point we can get. We lost too many games where we were up and we should have won and I think its desperation and today we had a healthy line-up it seemed like everyone was back," Vrbata said.

Phoenix has a tough stretch of games on the horizon against Eastern Conference opponents. The streak of five consecutive games against the East continues on Saturday in Glendale against the Boston Bruins then concludes with trips to Manhattan, Pittsburgh and Newark next week.