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Coyotes see progress in loss to Leafs, hope improvement continues at Senators

Toronto Maple Leafs Joffrey Lupul scores in overtime against Phoenix Coyotes Mike Smith on Thursday December19, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

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Toronto Maple Leafs Joffrey Lupul scores in overtime against Phoenix Coyotes Mike Smith on Thursday December19, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

TORONTO - After he moved past the frustration of a controversial shootout goal, Mike Smith was able to recall what went right for the Phoenix Coyotes on Thursday night.

"Yeah, after the first period," Smith said. "We definitely took some good things out of that game. ... As long as we're in games, we're giving ourselves a chance to win hockey games, I think we'll be pleased with it."

The Coyotes were pleased with one point after losing to the Toronto Maple Leafs, even though it also served as a point lost in a competitive Western Conference race. Phoenix goes into Saturday afternoon's game at the Ottawa Senators three points back of the second wild-card spot, with three games in hand on the Minnesota Wild.

And even though the Coyotes have lost three straight, coach Dave Tippett and his players noticed signs of progress in their matchup with the Leafs.

"It's a step in the right direction for us," Tippett said Thursday night. "Hopefully we can build on this and continue the road trip and go into Ottawa and play well."

Tippett pointed out how the Coyotes were "a little banged-up" with an illness to captain Shane Doan, an upper-body injury to forward Lauri Korpikoski and a lower-body injury to defenceman Zbynek Michalek. Because of that, Phoenix has counted on larger contributions from role players, which Tippett considers asking them to "elevate their game."

As a team, the Coyotes elevated their game against Toronto following losses to the Carolina Hurricanes and Montreal Canadiens. They followed Tippett's plan, almost too perfectly.

"We wanted to play hard road game, a simple road game," Tippett said. "I thought we were almost too simple in the first period. We didn't create anything. But our tempo got better as the game went on."

Centre Martin Hanzal, who scored the Coyotes' tying goal late in the third period, liked how he and his teammates improved throughout the night. But starting slow remains a concern.

"I don't know why is that, but we've got to figure (it) out," Hanzal said. "We got to make sure we are focusing on the next game and making sure we play all 60 minutes, not just 20 or 40."

As the red-hot Florida Panthers showed Thursday night, a strong 20 minutes can be enough to beat the scuffling Senators, who are 4-5-2 in December and out of the playoff picture.

The Coyotes have had their share of trouble, but they aren't in as desperate of a spot, even after losing to Toronto in a shootout.

On an individual level, Tippett praised Hanzal for his strong play after gutting through sickness Tuesday night in Montreal. Norris Trophy candidate Oliver Ekman-Larsson and potential U.S. Olympian Keith Yandle also had good games on the blue line against the Leafs.

"I thought our group of D played fairly well," Tippett said. "Yandle, as always, he's a dynamic player. he can get up the ice. Especially when you're chasing the game, he gives you a chance to get back in it."

In goal, Smith was the same "rock-solid player" Tippett has seen for much of the season. The front-runner to be Team Canada's No. 3 goaltender in Sochi also felt a lot better than he had recently.

"I feel a lot more comfortable out there," Smith said. "My game's coming around, so I'm getting some confidence in every game I'm in now and hopefully I can just keep building on it."

—Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at @SWhyno.

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