Pens’ fast start too much for Coyotes in loss
PITTSBURGH (AP) — By his own admission, Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Zbynek Michalek doesn’t watch much film of opposing goalies.
The way the low-scoring Michalek figures, he doesn’t get enough shots to worry about it.
Maybe he should start.
Michalek scored for the first time since October, Chris Kunitz added his 19th goal of the season, and Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 36 shots as the Penguins beat Phoenix 2-1 on Monday night for their sixth straight win.
“He needs to do a little better with his mental preparation and in our scouting report and pretend we play Phoenix every night,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.
Michalek — who spent five seasons with the Coyotes before signing with Pittsburgh in 2010 — beat Mike Smith to the stick side, and Kunitz followed with a nearly identical shot just over three minutes later as the Penguins improved to 10-1 in their last 11 home games.
The Pittsburgh bench erupted when Michalek scored for just the second time this season, yet it was Fleury who continually lifted his teammates out of their seats.
Phoenix put the pressure on, especially in the final frantic minutes when a pair of late power plays kept Fleury busy. He was up to the task, winning his sixth straight start and earning his 35th win of the season, one behind Nashville’s Pekka Rinne for the NHL lead.
“He was our best player. He needed to be,” Bylsma said. “He has been real solid in there. The consistency with which he’s played has probably been the biggest thing for us.”
Ray Whitney scored his 21st goal for the Coyotes, but Phoenix dropped its third straight after going unbeaten in regulation in February to surge to the top of the Pacific Division.
Mike Smith recovered after a shaky start to finish with 26 saves, but couldn’t stop Phoenix’s longest slide since early December.
The skid started with home losses to Calgary and Columbus that kept the Coyotes from gaining breathing room at the top of the crowded Pacific, where four teams are separated by three points.
Though the Coyotes played much better against the Penguins than they did in a 5-2 loss to Columbus on Saturday, forward Radim Vrbata wasn’t in the mood to celebrate a moral victory.
“The last two home games, they were not the best we could play,” said Vrbata, who picked up the 200th assist of his career on Whitney’s goal. “We wanted to have better effort, and we did that, but it wasn’t enough to get points.”
The Coyotes worked the puck side-to-side across the ice trying to get Fleury out of position. His mobility allows him to gobble up space quickly, and at one point he charged out of the net to stuff Martin Hanzal on a breakaway.
Yet his most important play might have been one he didn’t make after watching teammate Matt Cooke crash into Smith at the other end of the ice.
Smith started punching Cooke as the forward laid on Smith’s stick. Soon the goal mouth was filled with players.
Not Fleury, who ignored pleas from the crowd to skate over and jump in. Instead he remained in his crouch 150 feet away. With veteran backup Brent Johnson out because of an illness, and only rookie Brad Thiessen on the bench, Fleury understands he can’t take any chances.
Fleury’s only hiccup came early in the third on Whitney’s 21st goal. Radim Vrbata slipped a pass from the corner to the front of the net and found Whitney, who easily slid a shot past the lunging goalie.
It was a rare misstep for Fleury, who held on in the third despite a pair of late power plays for the Coyotes.
“He’s been great all season long and he’s the reason why we’re up there in the standings,” Michalek said of Fleury. “We can rely on him every single night. They came at us hard. He made so many unbelievable saves.”
The Penguins needed every one to improve to 12-2-3 against Western Conference opponents. Fleury has stopped 163 of the last 168 shots he has faced, a .970 save percentage.
“It’s a one-goal game, and you wish one of those shots would get by,” Vrbata said. “He’s a good goalie. That’s his job to stop us.”
NOTES: Pittsburgh D Kris Letang missed his second straight game due to concussion-like symptoms. The Penguins recalled Brian Strait from Wilkes-Barre of the AHL to fill in. … The Penguins also scratched defenseman Deryk Engelland and forwards Eric Tangradi and Dustin Jeffrey. … Forward Gilbert Brule and defenseman Michael Stone were scratched by the Coyotes . … Phoenix will play at Columbus on Tuesday.