While they aren’t playing their best hockey, the Pittsburgh Penguins sit comfortably atop the Metropolitan Division.
The Phoenix Coyotes don’t enjoy nearly the same luxury.
As the Penguins look to get on track without Evgeni Malkin on Tuesday night, they host a Coyotes team which will be forced to continue its playoff push without goalie Mike Smith.
Malkin injured his foot during his first shift in Sunday’s 1-0 loss to St. Louis but played the rest of the game. He sat out practice the next day, and the team learned Tuesday that the former MVP would miss two to three weeks. That means Malkin, among the league leaders with 72 points, might not return until the playoffs.
"Every time you lose a player like that, it’s a big blow for the team," linemate Jussi Jokinen told the NHL’s official website. "At the same time, we’ve dealt with a lot of injuries during the year and it might be the same case during the playoffs, and we’re losing one of our big names to injury, we still need to find a way to win some games.
"There’s only one Evgeni Malkin in the world."
Pittsburgh, though, is 8-3-0 this season when Malkin hasn’t played. Brandon Sutter will take the star center’s spot on the second line.
The Penguins (46-20-5) have gone 2-3-1 over their last six and were shut out for the second time in that span Sunday. Marc-Andre Fleury allowed the game’s only goal midway through the third period, dropping to 0-2-1 with a 3.96 goals-against average in his last four starts.
"We had the right mentality," defenseman Matt Niskanen told the team’s official website. "… That’s a good game for us to play because that’s how it’s going to be in the postseason. Things are going to be tight and I thought we did a pretty good job today except for finding a goal."
Pittsburgh, which went 3 for 6 on the power play in Saturday’s 4-3 overtime win over Tampa Bay, has otherwise gone 1 for its last 24. The Penguins were 0 for 5 on Sunday, dropping to 3-7-0 over their last 10 when failing to score on the man advantage.
"It would have been nice to get one on the power play," said captain Sidney Crosby, whose team is 13 points ahead of the second-place Rangers with two games in hand. "Obviously that’s the big story here. We battled and didn’t find a way to score. We still have to do a better job of generating some chances, some rebounds around the net and having some more numbers there. It’s not as easy as just saying that. You have to battle in those areas."
The Penguins also failed to generate much offense in a 3-1 loss at Phoenix on Feb. 1. Mike Ribeiro had a goal and an assist and Smith made 23 saves as the Coyotes snapped a three-game losing streak in the series.
Phoenix (34-26-12) had won three straight overall and seven of nine before suffering back-to-back losses, 4-2 to Boston on Saturday and 4-3 in overtime at the Rangers on Monday. The Coyotes led 2-0 after the first period and went up 3-2 late in the second, but Thomas Greiss allowed the tying goal with 3:28 left in regulation shortly after relieving Smith.
Smith, who was making his 12th consecutive start, stopped 25 of 27 shots before exiting with a right leg injury. He’s day to day and won’t start this game, yielding to Greiss.
"Smitty is one of the best goalies in the league," said center Kyle Chipchura, who had two points. "To lose him will be really tough for us."
Smith’s injury comes at a less than opportune time for the Coyotes, who are one point ahead of Dallas for the Western Conference’s second wild-card spot.
In addition to Smith, Coyotes forward Lauri Korpikoski is uncertain to play after missing Monday’s game with an upper-body injury.
Fleury has never lost to Phoenix at home, surrendering one goal in each of his three wins. Crosby has three goals and seven assists in seven meetings against the Coyotes.