Chris Kunitz scored the game-winning goal late in the first period and Marc-Andre Fleury made 36 saves to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins to a 2-1 victory over the Phoenix Coyotes Monday night at the CONSOL Energy Center.
The win was the sixth straight for Pittsburgh, who climbed to within eight points of the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference-leading New York Rangers. The Penguins gave themselves a bit of breathing room behind them, as they moved four points ahead of the idle Philadelphia Flyers for the fourth spot in the conference.
Following a torrid 11-0-1 streak that lifted them to the top of the Pacific Division standings, Phoenix dropped their third consecutive contest. But the 'Yotes fell out of the top spot in the division, as the idle Dallas Stars moved in front by virtue of the Phoenix defeat.
Ex-Coyote defender Zbynek Michalek, who signed as an unrestricted free agent prior to last season, opened the scoring just past the midway point of the first period. Jordan Staal carried the puck into the Phoenix zone along the right wing side and sent a pass to Michalek in the slot. The defenseman steadied the puck before snapping a wrist shot to the blocker side that Coyotes netminder Mike Smith got a piece of, but could not stop. Michalek's second goal of the year at the 11:44 mark staked the home club to a 1-0 lead.
Pittsburgh extended their lead a little more than three minutes later when Kunitz beat Smith to the stick side from almost the exact same spot on the ice. Smith again got a portion of the shot, but could not keep it out of the net. Kunitz's 19th goal of the season made it a 2-0 Penguins lead with 5:15 remaining in the opening frame.
After a scoreless second period, Phoenix was finally able to break through early in the third, as the Coyotes broke out of their own end on an odd-man rush following a defensive zone faceoff. Radim Vrbata set up Ray Whitney, who was left all alone in front of the Pittsburgh cage, and the wily veteran roofed a shot over Fleury's glove hand for his 21st goal of the year to pull the visitors to within one at 2-1 just 1:27 into the frame.
Fleury would not allow another goal, as he slammed the door shut on Phoenix the rest of the way.
The Coyotes were even given a golden opportunity with 6:36 left in regulation when Matt Niskanen was sent to the penalty box for hooking Antoine Vermette. But as has been the case for the entire season, the man advantage would be anything but the equalizer for Phoenix. The club with the worst power play percentage (13.5%) entering the night came up empty on both of their chances against the Pens.
After stopping 36 of the 37 shots he faced, including all 15 in the middle stanza, Fleury won his sixth straight decision to improve his record to 35-14-3 for the season.
Smith made 26 saves while failing in his third consecutive bid to hit the 30-victory mark. His record now stands at 29-17-7 for the year.
Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin picked up the primary assist on Kunitz's tally to keep his point-scoring streak alive at eight games, a stretch that has seen the Russian score five goals and register 11 points. With the assist, Malkin regained the NHL's scoring lead from the red-hot Steven Stamkos, as Malkin's 81st point gives him a one-point lead over the Tampa Bay Lightning sniper.