Crosby held in check again as Coyotes streak past Penguins
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Sidney Crosby has two goals in his past nine games.
This is not time to panic, as the NHL playoffs don't begin for another 10 weeks.
The Olympic tournament starts for Team Canada, which Crosby will captain in Sochi, Russia, in less than two weeks.
So, indeed, the Penguins' three games before the Olympic break will matter for their best player — and for coach Dan Bylsma, who watched his club lose for the third time in seven games, 3-1, to the Phoenix Coyotes at Jobing.com Arena on Saturday night.
“This was indicative of the types of games we are going to play — tight games, tough games,” Bylsma said.
The Penguins attempted 57 shots, but the Coyotes blocked 20, and their defense forced the Penguins to miss on 13.
“We had good chances,” said Crosby, who directed two of his five shot attempts on net. “(Coyotes goalie Mike Smith) made the saves.”
Smith was bested only by Penguins center Evgeni Malkin, whose 16th goal late in the second period pulled his club within 2-1.
An early third-period marker by Coyotes winger Radim Vrbata restored their two-goal cushion and sealed the win.
Vrbata nearly secured another spot for a Penguins defenseman on the injured list late in the game. A puck off his stick struck rookie Olli Maatta in the jaw.
Maatta sported a swollen right cheek but said he was OK after the game.
“It's his fourth puck in the face in about five days,” Bylsma said. “From the report I have, he'll be fine, but it was scary to see that again out there.”
The Penguins played again without defenseman Kris Letang, who missed a second consecutive contest because of illness. He has missed 21 games this season.
The Coyotes, fighting for their playoff lives in a statistically superior Western Conference, deployed defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson often against Crosby's top line.
Crosby and wingers Chris Kunitz and Brian Gibbons combined to attempt 10 shots.
Malkin's second line was credited with 24 attempts, but Malkin and James Neal misfired on a collective nine.
“We have to be better at hitting the net, and that starts with me,” said Neal, who is without a goal in eight games.
The NHL's leading scorer and a top MVP candidate, Crosby has posted eight points since his run with points in 17 of 18 games from Dec. 3-Jan. 7. The Penguins went 14-3-0 during that stretch, and Crosby scored 12 of his 27 overall goals and produced 31 of his 75 total points.
The Penguins (38-15-2, 78 points) built a huge division lead and a considerable conference advantage during Crosby's month of prolific scoring.
However, they could benefit from a strong finish before the NHL breaks for three weeks next Saturday.
Of their final three opponents before the Olympics — Ottawa (Monday), at Buffalo (Wednesday) and New York (Friday) — only the Rangers began Saturday holding a playoff spot.
“You want to play well, no matter where the games are in the schedule,” Neal said. “No matter who you're playing, we just have to get back to doing it every night.”