The Phoenix Coyotes' Martin Hanzal attempts to get a shot off on Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury as the Penguins' James Neal (18) and Rob Scuderi (4) defend during the second period.
Ralph Freso/Associated Press
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby skates with the puck around the defense of the Coyotes' Shane Doan during the first period.
By Shelly Anderson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Sidney Crosby probably could have followed the lead of another NHL captain a couple of nights earlier, Phoenix’s Shane Doan.
Crosby surely would have been perceived as justified if he had lit into the Penguins Saturday night after their 3-1 loss to the Coyotes at Jobing.com Arena.
But that’s not his style.
Instead, Crosby politely answered questions about the game. Then he took a couple of slow, contemplative laps around a Penguins locker room that had quickly cleared out and finally settled into a stall several seats down from his own, a blank look on his face.
The Penguins, who lead the Eastern Conference with 78 points, are 6-3-1 in their past 10 games, but the four losses in that stretch have come against teams that are far below them in the standings and are not currently in a playoff spot.
“I don’t think we really think about that a whole lot,” Crosby said of the standings implications. “Maybe we should.”
The Penguins are sure to face more such teams as they head into the final weeks of this season.
“I thought our energy level and compete [level] was pretty high,” Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “In these tight games, they’re just not going to give you much. That’s just the way it is.
“We’ve got to be comfortable in those tight games. That’s just the way it’s going to be the rest of the way against any team that’s in the picture, and the further you go, the tighter things get. You’ve got to keep getting better and playing those games and find a way to win them.”
Phoenix is in the category Niskanen described and was a team that could have been fragile or keenly focused. It turns out the Coyotes were the latter.
Phoenix was feeling good about itself after a 3-0 win at home Tuesday against the Los Angeles Kings, but things went decidedly in the opposite direction two nights later.
The Coyotes blew a 2-1 lead at home against the last-place Buffalo Sabres and lost, 3-2.
Doan was livid after the Buffalo game, and he vented publicly, saying his club did “absolutely nothing” and repeatedly saying it was “embarrassing.”
Coyotes center Mike Ribeiro preached a remedy of letting go of the frustration, talking it out and being thankful that the Coyotes could come back quickly with a game against what he called “a tough team.”
It was Ribeiro who struck first against the Penguins.
Phoenix didn’t score on the only power play of the first period, but the Coyotes were still set up in the Penguins end five seconds after Niskanen’s holding penalty expired. Ribeiro launched a shot that clipped the stick of Penguins defenseman Paul Martin and sailed past goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury for a 1-0 lead at 12:43.
It was Ribeiro’s 200th career goal. It also gave him 26 points, including nine goals, in 27 career games against the Penguins.
The Penguins didn’t register a shot over the final 10:17 of the first period.
At 10:11 of the second period, former Penguins defenseman Zbnyek Michalek gave the Coyotes a 2-0 lead on a shot from the right point with Fleury screened. It was Michalek’s first goal this season, his first in 83 games, and his first since March 5, 2012, when he was with the Penguins and scored against Phoenix.
Michalek and his defense partner Oliver Ekman-Larsson drew the assignment of being on the ice against the Penguins’ top line, and the two were effective in helping to Crosby without a point.
“They play a good team defense,” Crosby said. “We didn’t make it tough enough on them. We didn’t do a good enough job of creating. We could have done more there.”
The Penguins finally solved Phoenix goaltender Mike Smith at 15:51 of the second period. Jussi Jokinen’s work in the corner allowed him to get the puck to James Neal, who set up Evgeni Malkin. Stationed at the bottom of the right circle, Malkin flipped the puck between the splayed pads of Smith to make it 2-1.
The goal was Malkin’s 614th career point, giving him sole possession of fifth place on the Penguins’ all-time list.
Phoenix pushed its lead to 3-1 at 4:13 of the third period when Radim Vrbata — on a two-on-one break with Doan — beat Fleury between his pads.
The Penguins hurt themselves with penalties in the third period, including a diving call against Neal that left things four on four instead of giving the Penguins a power play and, 19 seconds later, an unsportsmanlike conduct minor against Malkin.
“Disappointed we got called for diving to match their two-minute interference,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “And obviously taking the unsportsmanlike at that point in the game is not the right thing to do.”
Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta left the game in the third period after taking a puck to the face, but Maatta and Bylsma indicated that he was OK.
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