PITTSBURGH (AP) - Penguins coach Mike Sullivan understands the risk/reward when he pairs Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel.
When fully engaged and focused on the finer points of the game, they are as dynamic as any second-line duo in the NHL. When they’re not, things can get sloppy. Really sloppy. So Sullivan will occasionally split them up, as he did with Pittsburgh’s offense languishing at the end of a road trip out West.
Yet Sullivan almost always puts them back together, confident the good will outweigh whatever baggage might come along with it. The evidence was on display during a workmanlike 3-1 victory over the Arizona Coyotes on Tuesday night. Malkin and Kessel both had a goal and two assists as the Penguins put together a clinical performance to take some of the sting out of an uneven five-game swing through Western Canada.
“They were threats most shifts,” Sullivan said. “They’re playing hard right now. … What our coaching staff really likes is how hard they’re playing, how committed they are.”
Funny how much better the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions look when that happens.
“We’re excited to play together but we need to understand it’s one game,” Malkin said. “It’s important, but now we need to do it more.”
Justin Schultz scored in his return from a concussion and Matt Murray stopped 24 shots to stretch his home unbeaten streak to 13 games.
Tobias Rieder got his third goal of the season for the Coyotes, who fell to an NHL-worst 2-13-2. Antti Raanta made 34 saves but was sloppy in the early going as the Penguins raced to a quick lead.
Schultz scored 59 seconds into the game and Malkin made it 2-0 just over two minutes later. That was more than enough for Murray, who was rarely challenged.
“Those are tough games sometimes,” Murray said. “You get periods of time where you’re just standing there doing nothing and trying to keep yourself engaged and all of a sudden it’s a 3-on-1 or a breakaway. It can be a bit difficult at times but as a team we did a good job handling it, keeping them contained and not giving them a whole lot.”
Sullivan joked that a visit by Arizona coach Rick Tocchet - who spent the last two seasons as Sullivan’s top lieutenant while the Penguins became the first team in nearly two decades to win back-to-back Cups - was exactly what Pittsburgh needed to get it going. He might have been on to something.
By the time the crowd rose to its feet to give Tocchet a standing ovation during a first-period stoppage, the Penguins were already up by two.
“That’s pretty much what you get with a back-to-back and you give up two quick goals early on in a game,” Raanta said. “As a goalie, you don’t want to do that. The first 10 minutes are usually crucial and the first one was that kind of goal you don’t want to let in. It was tough for the team after those two goals.”
Raanta settled down after his sluggish start and kept Arizona in it thanks in part to a sprawling save with his right pad to thwart a 2-on-1. Rieder’s goal 26 seconds into the third briefly gave the Coyotes hope and marked Arizona’s first score in Pittsburgh since March 28, 2015.
The rally never fully materialized, mostly because the Coyotes couldn’t stay out of the penalty box. Arizona took six penalties in all, and the NHL’s second-ranked power play finally broke through when Kessel knocked a floating puck out of the air and into an open net 6:06 into the third to restore Pittsburgh’s two-goal advantage.
“I thought the PK did a great job,” Tocchet said. “I think they did a hell of a job. They got some zone time a little bit, but you can’t give (the Penguins) (12) minutes of power plays.”
NOTES: Pittsburgh wore purple jerseys during warmups as part of a cancer awareness campaign. The jerseys will be autographed and auctioned online, with the proceeds going to benefit research at the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center and the Mario Lemieux Foundation. … To make room for Schultz on the roster, the Penguins reassigned D Zach Trotman to Wilkes Barre/Scranton. … Penguins captain Sidney Crosby did not have a shot, the first time he’s gone without one in a regular-season game since March 3, 2017, against Tampa Bay.
Coyotes: Finish a three-game road trip in St. Louis on Thursday.
Penguins: Play at Washington on Friday. Pittsburgh edged the rival Capitals 3-2 on Oct. 10.
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