What to Watch For: Pens vs. Coyotes
Sunday, 03.04.2012 / 8:00 PM / Features
By Michelle Crechiolo
WHEN: March 5, 2012 - 7:00 pm | WHERE: CONSOL Energy Center
WATCH: ROOT SPORTS | LISTEN: Penguins 24/7 Radio, 105.9 FM
On Feb. 1, the Phoenix Coyotes were in 12th place in the Western Conference and three points out of a playoff spot. But thanks to earning 23 of a 24 possible points in an 11-0-1 run during the month, Phoenix has catapulted to third in the West and first in the Pacific Division. Their 12-game point streak was the second-best stretch in franchise history (12-0-2-0 from Oct. 25-Nov. 28, 1998).
|Mike Smith set a franchise record with his 11-game win streak in the month of February. (Getty Images)|
Although goaltender Mike Smith was in net for both of those losses, his overall body of work over the last month has been incredible. Smith, who signed a two-year deal with Phoenix last summer after Ilya Bryzaglov left for Philadelphia, backstopped the Coyotes over their impressive run – setting a franchise record with his 11-game winning streak and being named the NHL’s ‘First Star’ for February for his efforts.
Overall, Smith – whose 6-foot-4, 218-pound frame takes up a lot of space between the pipes and who possesses phenomenal puckhandling skills – has been an absolute workhorse in his first season with Phoenix after four campaigns in Tampa Bay, appearing in 24 of the last 26 games. His record so far this season is a solid 29-16-7.
And Smith isn’t the only player who elevated his game to help lead the Coyotes on their impressive streak. Veteran forward Ray Whitney has been Phoenix's hottest player, with goals in four of his last five games and points in 15 of the last 17 games for a total of 20 over that span. Overall, the Wizard’s 59 total points lead the team. In addition, winger Radim Vrbrata has been quietly spectacular for Phoenix all season, as he’s scored a career-best 30 goals and has 16 points (8G-8A) in his last 16 games. Together with Martin Hanzal, those three players form Phoenix’s hottest line.
When the Coyotes are at their best, they’re spreading out their offense, starting strong, getting improved special teams play and stellar goaltending. It’s a formula they’ve started to get away from recently, especially with the way they’ve been outscored 10-2 in the first period of their last six games.
COYOTES: RAY WHITNEY
The 39-year-old forward has found some youthful legs, as he’s currently the Coyotes’ hottest player. Whitney was the catalyst of Phoenix’s offense during their 11-0-1 run, compiling five goals and 10 assists during the team’s 12-game unbeaten streak. Looking at the bigger picture, he’s got points in 17 of his last 20 contests and has four goals in his last five games. Whitney is nicknamed ‘The Wizard’ for his finesse, elusive moves and excellent vision, and the Penguins will need to play him tough to ensure he doesn’t conjure up any magic with the puck.
PENGUINS: STEVE SULLIVAN
The Penguins also have a crafty veteran who’s been red-hot, as Steve Sullivan enters Monday’s game riding a seven-game point streak with three goals and eight assists over that span. The 37-year-old winger has 15 points (5G-10A) in his last 16 games. He’s finally become 100 percent comfortable with head coach Dan Bylsma’s system in his first season with the Penguins, and it shows with the skilled plays he’s been making with linemates Pascal Dupuis and Jordan Staal, and while quarterbacking the league’s fifth-ranked power play.
Pittsburgh swept both meetings between the teams last year – 4-3 in a shootout on Nov. 6, 2010 at Glendale Arena and 6-1 on Dec. 20, 2010 at CONSOL Energy Center. In the first meeting, Pittsburgh overcame an early 2-0 deficit to come back and win when Mark Letestu scored the game-deciding shootout goal. On Dec. 20, Evgeni Malkin notched five points (2G-3A) to lead the way. Malkin was the leading scorer in the series last year with six points (3G-3A) in two games.
The Penguins have won five of the last seven meetings with Phoenix.
This season, the Penguins have the Eastern Conference's best record against the Western Conference at 11-2-3. Only the St. Louis Blues (13-1-2) have a better out-of-conference record among NHL teams.
Pittsburgh enters Monday's game riding a five-game winning streak – the longest active streak in the NHL. The Penguins’ five-game winning streak is tied for their second-longest of the season (also had one Oct. 18-27). Pittsburgh had a season-best eight-game winning streak from Jan. 13-31.
The Penguins are 17-4-1 in their last 22 games dating back to Jan. 13. In those 22 games they have scored 78 goals for an average of 3.55 per game.
Pittsburgh has won three straight home games and is 9-1 in its last 10 home contests. During this run, the Penguins have averaged 4.0 goals per game while outscoring their opponents, 40-24. They have scored four or more goals in seven of the 10 games, including two instances where they have registered eight goals in a game (Feb. 11 vs. Winnipeg, 8-5; Feb. 25 vs. Tampa Bay, 8-1).
Evgeni Malkin (38G-42A) enters Monday's game with 80 total points, tying him with Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos atop the NHL scoring race. The two also rank Nos. 1-2 (Stamkos, 47; Malkin, 38) in the goal-scoring race. Malkin is also riding a seven-game point streak (6G-5A), his second-longest streak of the season (9 games; Dec. 8-29; 6G-13A). He has points in 13 of his last 15 games and 19 of his past 22 contests. In those 22 games, Malkin has scored at least one goal in 15 of the 22 games. During that span he has 35 points (21G-14A) for an average of 1.59 points per game.
Forward Tyler Kennedy, who suffered a high-ankle sprain on Feb. 5 at New Jersey, has been practicing with the team since Feb. 29 and head coach Dan Bylsma said he will be a game-time decision for Monday vs. Phoenix.
Defenseman Deryk Engelland did not participate in Monday's morning skate and Bylsma said he is day-to-day with a lower-body injury. The Penguins recalled Brian Strait from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton this morning to take Engelland's place in the lineup tonight.
Defenseman Kris Letang is experiencing "symptoms" after a hit from Stars forward Eric Nystrom midway through the first period of Pittsburgh's 4-3 shootout win over Dallas on Feb. 29.
Bylsma said following Monday's morning skate that there is no update on this time at Letang, who is being reevaluated by doctors.
Goalie Brent Johnson has been sidelined since tweaking something in practice on Feb. 23. Bylsma said he doesn't anticipate Johnson being out long-term at this point.
"Not really long-term at this point (on Johnson)," Bylsma said after practice on March 2. "He’s doing rehab and getting rest from the ice. Don’t anticipate it being long-term at this point."
C Sidney Crosby, concussion-like symptoms (36)
G Brent Johnson, undisclosed (5)
F Tyler Kennedy, high ankle sprain (11)
D Kris Letang, symptoms (1)
F Gilbert Brule, upper body (5)
F Kyle Chipchura, upper body (6)
D Rostislav Klesla, upper-body (7)
D Derek Morris, family illness/leave of absence (9)
D David Schlemko, lower body (23)
Author: Michelle Crechiolo