(AP) - Mike Smith's injury should have sent the Arizona Coyotes into a tailspin. The loss of a No. 1 goalie is tough for any team, and it figured to be crippling to a club that relies so much on defense.
Louis Domingue changed Arizona's fortunes. Instead of tumbling down the standings, the Coyotes have climbed within reach of the Pacific Division lead behind their confident-beyond-his-years rookie goalie.
After getting a much-needed rest, Domingue will be back in net Monday night against the visiting Buffalo Sabres looking to help the Coyotes earn at least a point for the eighth time in nine games.
Domingue made a brief stop in the NHL last season, going 1-2-1 with a 2.73 goals-against average in seven games. With that short stint, he realized he belonged in the NHL and worked harder than ever over the summer - on his game and his conditioning.
"You never know you can play in the NHL until you actually do," Domingue said. "Last year, I had a chance to measure myself against the best players in the world and it showed me that I could be here and made me confident for sure."
Domingue didn't make the roster coming out of training camp, though he wasn't too surprised about it. The Coyotes already had Smith and veteran backup Anders Lindback, so he kind of expected to be sent to Springfield of the AHL to get more playing time.
Domingue took advantage of that extra playing time and was confident when he was called up after Smith underwent abdominal surgery Dec. 15. He's 7-2-3 with a 2.21 goals-against average in 10 starts and two relief efforts, and he's the first rookie goalie in team history to win three straight starts.
Arizona (22-17-5) has gone 8-2-3 since Dec. 19 to climb into second in the Pacific. It suffered a rare regulation loss Saturday, 2-0 to New Jersey with Lindback in net.
Coach Dave Tippett confirmed Domingue will be in goal against the Sabres (18-23-4).
"There's two things when (a rookie replaces a veteran goaltender)," Tippett said. "A team will look at that situation and say we've got to hunker down and make sure we play a good team game to help the goaltender, and the goaltender feels confident that the group is going play well in front of him. It's been a good match."
Domingue will get his first crack at Buffalo, which beat the Coyotes 5-2 on Dec. 4 behind two goals from Evander Kane. The Sabres have won all five meetings in Arizona since last losing there in 2008.
Kane scored and had an assist Saturday to help Buffalo win for the third time in four tries with a 4-1 victory over NHL-leading Washington. The Sabres had dropped six straight prior to this run, with Kane having a goal and three assists in that stretch.
He went without a point during the losing streak.
"We lost the one (Friday) against Boston, so we were really just trying to come out with a solid effort," said Cody Franson, who had a power-play goal. "We knew they were going to keep coming at us and we had to play solid systematically. For the most part, I think we did that."
Chad Johnson made 33 saves, getting the start despite presumed No. 1 goaltender Robin Lehner returning Friday from a lower-body injury that caused him to miss 39 games. Lehner could be back in net for this one.
Josh Gorges missed Saturday's contest with an upper-body issue but will make the trip. Zemgus Girgensons will miss his second straight with an upper-body injury.