GLENDALE, Ariz. — Saturday’s game was a perfect display of the dilemma the Coyotes face with center Martin Hanzal. With the NHL’s March trade deadline rapidly approaching, there were 10 scouts in attendance when the Coyotes hosted the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins at Gila River Arena.
Several of them were likely there to watch Hanzal, who is playing on an expiring contract and has had no meaningful talks of a new deal with the team since last summer.
Connor Murphy scored the game-winner from a wide angle off the left wing in Arizona’s needlessly suspenseful, 4-3 overtime win over the Penguins, but Hanzal made a strong case for his value. The big Czech scored twice to move into a tie for the team-lead with 12 goals, and he held Penguins star Sidney Crosby (minus-1) off the score sheet in consecutive games for the first time in a nearly a year, leaving Crosby stuck on 998 career points.
“He was a monster for us tonight,” said Coyotes goalie Mike Smith, who made 28 saves but mishandled a puck late that helped the Penguins salvage a point. “Right from the drop of the puck he was engaged in the game. He led by example out there tonight and that’s what we need from him.”
Hanzal was out of the lineup two days earlier against Montreal with a flu bug, but he viewed the assignment of stopping Crosby as just another day at the office.
“I play against these [types of] guys pretty much every night, every game, so it’s kind of my job,” said Hanzal, who also noted the big roles defensemen Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Luke Schenn played in stopping Crosby. “But when you play against the Stanley Cup champions and Sidney Crosby it’s maybe a little extra motivation. I was just trying to play as hard as I could.”
After Tobias Rider tied the game early in the second period, Hanzal gave the Coyotes a 2-1 lead on a power-play goal at the nine-minute mark of the second period when he swept the rebound of Radim Vrbata’s shot from the point under goalie Marc-Andre Fleury’s pad for his 11th goal of the season.
Hanzal widened the lead to 3-1 at 3:36 of the second period when Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s deflected shot up over Fleury’s shoulder and Hanzal dove to sweep the puck from the crease into the net.
“I was lucky there,” Hanzal said.
The Coyotes are almost certainly going to entertain offers for Hanzal from a host of teams looking for a playoff boost, and there is still that troubling concern of Hanzal’s durability to consider as he approaches his 30th birthday on Feb. 20, but the stark contrast between when he is in the lineup and when he is not is something that must give the Coyotes pause as they ponder a future with Brad Richardson, Christian Dvorak, maybe Dylan Strome and maybe a draft pick, free-agent signing or trade pickup.
“Especially coming off a couple days sick and going against if not the best, one of the best players in the world head to head, that’s a big challenge and Marty came up big tonight,” coach Dave Tippett said. “He embraces the challenge.”
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