By Dan Scifo
From the Point contributor
PITTSBURGH — The Phoenix Coyotes, in the midst of a tightly-contested Western Conference playoff race, looked fine one game without their injured starting goaltender.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, on the other hand, hold a comfortable lead atop the Metropolitan Division, but they struggled in their first game without star center Evgeni Malkin, who could miss the rest of the regular season with a foot injury.
It’s a disturbing trend that comes at the worst possible time for the reeling Penguins, who are trying to get back on track before the playoffs begin.
Mikkel Boedker scored the game-winning goal in the second period and backup goaltender Thomas Greiss stopped 23 shots, leading the Phoenix Coyotes to a 3-2 victory Tuesday night at Consol Energy Center.
“I don’t find any joy in losing and really not playing well,” Penguins’ head coach Dan Bylsma said. “There is no excuse for that in terms of our play and how we play.”
The teams combined for four goals during a wild opening period, but settled down considerably the rest of the way, with Boedker netting the only goal. Antoine Vermette scored his 24th on the power play and David Moss added his seventh of the year for the Coyotes, who snapped a two-game skid.
Pittsburgh, which missed out on a chance to clinch a playoff berth for the eighth straight year, dropped its second straight, going 2-4-1 over its last seven with two losses by shutout.
The Penguins, who got goals from Jussi Jokinen and a rare one from Taylor Pyatt, had trouble generating offense during the final 40 minutes against the defensive-minded Coyotes and Greiss, filling in for injured starter Mike Smith, considered day-to-day with a right leg injury.
“If our effort is there, we’re going to give ourselves a chance to be in the games,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “If not, we’re going to make it pretty tough on ourselves.”
The Penguins have injury problems of their own as Malkin will miss two-to-three weeks with a foot injury, suffered during the first shift of Sunday’s 1-0 loss against St. Louis. Malkin, who has missed 11 games this season, finished Sunday’s game, but sat out practice on Monday.
“I don’t think there’s anyone feeling sorry for us, but still that doesn’t allow us to not have the right type of effort and work ethic,” Crosby said.
Brandon Sutter centered the second line between Jokinen and James Neal, replacing Malkin, the former NHL MVP, who was playing some of his best hockey of the season with four goals in three games prior to the injury.
“There’s a little bit of a bite missing right now,” Sutter said. “We just have to get it back.”
The Coyotes played without Smith and also Lauri Korpikoski, who remains out with an upper body injury. Smith made his 12 consecutive starts prior to the injury.
It wasn’t evident on Tuesday, but the injuries come at a bad time for the Coyotes, who are entrenched in a battle for a wild-card spot in the Western Conference. Phoenix had won three straight and seven of nine overall before suffering-back-to-back losses against Boston and the New York Rangers.
“The leadership in the room really stepped up tonight and made sure there was no lull in our game,” Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett said.
Boedker’s game-winner came in the second period as a penalty to Jokinen expired when he roofed a sharp-angle shot over Fleury’s shoulder from the top of the crease. Jokinen’s penalty, a slashing call, was retaliatory in nature and in the offensive zone.
“That definitely hurt our team,” Bylsma said. “The undisciplined penalty is the difference in the game and it is frustrating.”
Undisciplined play has been a bad habit for this Penguins’ team in recent weeks, a trend it looks to right as the playoffs approach.
“It’s not something we’re proud of by any means,” Sutter said. “It’s not something we want to keep doing. We have to correct it. We have a veteran group here and we’re smarter than that.
“You don’t take those kind of penalties in the playoffs and there’s no reason to take them now.”
The Penguins carried the play in the early going, but Phoenix scored the opening goal midway through the first period as Moss buried a one-timer from Martin Hanzal, capitalizing on a Pittsburgh turnover in the corner.
Jokinen netted the equalizer on the power play, but it took two-and-a-half minutes before the Penguins were credited with the goal. Jokinen’s bad-angle shot from the goal-line snuck underneath the cross-bar, but play continued and the Penguins later needed a video review to get the goal.
“It looked like it hit the camera or something,” Crosby said. “You knew it was in.”
Phoenix regained the lead with a power play goal later in the period as Vermette poked the rebound from a Shane Doan shot between Marc-Andre Fleury’s legs from the top of the crease.
Pyatt tied the game with 4.1 seconds left in the first, capping the period with his between-the-legs tip from Rob Scuderi’s point shot.
Boedker’s game-winner in the second sunk the Penguins, sending them deeper into a current funk they are attempting to break as the playoffs approach.
“It’s more mental errors and we’ve had our fair share this year, especially in the last three weeks,” Sutter said. “As a team, we have to be better than that.”
NOTES: Prior to Tuesday, the Penguins won 16 straight without Malkin in the lineup, their last loss coming October 2011…Crosby has 21 goals and 71 points without Malkin and points in five straight and 16 of the last 17 games…Pittsburgh killed 21 consecutive penalties against Phoenix dating to October 2009 prior to Vermette’s power play goal…Pyatt scored his first goal since Jan. 22.