GLENDALE, Ariz. — The conundrum on skates continued its up-and-down campaign Saturday night.
Forty-eight hours removed from a 3-2 loss to the Eastern Conference-bottom feeding Buffalo Sabres — a performance captain Shane Doan later called “embarrassing” — the Phoenix Coyotes responded with a resounding 3-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins in front of an over-capacity crowd at Jobing.com Arena.
The Coyotes notched a goal apiece from Mike Ribeiro, Radim Vrbata and Zbynek Michalek, limited their turnovers and penalties, shut down NHL points leader Sidney Crosby and received a stout performance (23 saves on 24 shots) between the pipes from well-rested goaltender Mike Smith, en route to a complete effort over the beasts of the East.
“[The last two games] show that there are no bad teams in the league,” Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett said. “Everybody is going to work hard, and you’re going to get breaks here and there if you go out and earn your points. I felt like [tonight] was as close to a 60-minute effort as we’ve put in. If you look at the Buffalo game and take the goal away in the third period, other than that we were all right in the third period. In the first period, we were all right. But in the second period, we were really poor.
“That’s what we talked about. You can’t play parts of games and just expect to win, especially when you play a good team like this. If you play part of the game, you aren’t going to win. That was the goal going in, and I thought we did a pretty good job of that tonight.”
For Pittsburgh, the loss was their first in regulation this season in 10 contests (8-1-1) against the Pacific Division.
Coyotes defenseman Zybnek Michalek has always been the ultimate team-first guy. A stay-at-home blue liner who often thrives simply by doing the dirty work, Michalek rarely gets to reap the benefits at the offensive end.
That changed Saturday night.
Following a two-minute penalty kill by Phoenix that featured one clearance and a blocked shot by Michalek off the stick of Crosby, the Sochi-bound defenseman was able to translate his savvy on special teams into some much-needed offense.
Set up beautifully on a simple pass underneath the blue line from Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Michalek took two steps towards the right circle before rifling a slap shot past Marc-Andre Fleury, who was blocked by Mikkel Boedker in front of the net.
The tally was Michalek’s first of the season and first since March 5, 2012.
“I almost forgot what it felt like [to score], because it’s been almost two years,” Michalek joked. “It definitely felt good. Hopefully I don’t have to wait that long for the next goal.”
Though not primarily concerned with his offensive output, Michalek admitted Saturday night’s goal had a little extra meaning attached to it. After all, he was a member of the Penguins the last time he lit the lamp.
“This one feels good and for me even sweeter,” said Michalek. “Any time you play against your former team, you want to show up. You want to win that game and feel good about it. For me, this one feels great. I’ll enjoy it tonight and move on.”
In addition to his helper on the Michalek goal, Ekman-Larsson left his imprint on the victory at the defensive. Paired opposite Crosby, who came into the night with a league-leading 75 points, the 22-year-old went toe-to-toe with the world’s best and never faltered.
Playing a game-high 27 minutes and 23 seconds, the Swede had one blocked shot, deflected several others and registered three hits.
And, as the game progressed, Crosby and Malkin were clearly flustered — to the point the latter tried to land an unnecessary slash on Ekman-Larsson’s left wrist as time wound down in the third period.
“I think we did a good job all night,” Ekman-Larsson said. “It was fun.”
Ekman-Larsson’s coach was a little bit more revealing with his take on the defenseman’s dominant contribution.
“Olli was all-world there,” said Tippett. “That was an unbelievable game by him. I think people are a little frustrated by him. He’s so good. It’s not just with the puck. He defends very well.
“If a guy is trying to have success against another guy and it’s not happening, you get a little frustrated. His stick work is phenomenal in traffic, and he makes a lot of good plays. He’s a pretty good player.”
It’s hard to be too critical of Martin Hanzal, after all, the 26-year-old recorded a point and handled the puck with notable confidence in the two-goal victory.
With that said, Hanzal added to his already team-leading penalty minutes total (69) with a holding-the-stick infraction seven-plus minutes into the second period. The penalty was a result of working hard to gain position in front of Fleury, but it still highlighted a major issue.
Rarely does a team’s top-line center take enough penalties — ticky-tacky or otherwise — to actually lead the team in the category. Maybe this season is just an outlier for Hanzal, then again his past history — at least as it relates to the sin bin — might indicate otherwise.
Aggressive play is commendable, but so too is smart play. Hanzal continues to struggle when it comes to walking that fine line.
He Said It:
“We’re very happy with our effort and the consistency through the 60 minutes. It’s not easy to play like that, but it’s easy to play one game like that. It’s harder to string those together. That’s our next focus.” — Phoenix Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith
– Ribeiro’s goal in the first period was his 14th of the season, but more importantly, the 200th of his 13-year career.
– Vermette extended his points streak to a career-high seven games with his assist on Ribeiro’s goal. In those seven games, he’s notched 10 total points.
– The Penguins finished with 24 shots but were held without one for the final 10:17 of first period.
– Phoenix announced a sellout of 17,362 fans for Saturday’s 3-1 win – the second-largest crowd of the season.
– With the win, the Coyotes moved to 19-4-3 in the month of February since the 2011-12 campaign.
The Coyotes (26-19-10), who now trail the Canucks by one point for the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference, have another opportunity to gain ground in the standings, as former divisional foe Dallas (24-21-9) comes to town Tuesday night for the first head-to-head matchup between the teams in 2013-14. The puck drops at 7:00 p.m. MST and can be heard on KMVP 860 AM.