GLENDALE, Ariz. — Welcome to Bizzaro World, where up is down and where the Penguins, despite winning 15 of their last 21, need a win tonight and some help to get back into the one of the top three spots in the Metropolitan Division.
Think that’s odd?
No less odd than that their opponent tonight, the Arizona Coyotes, have 11 fewer points than the Penguins but sit just four points out of a wildcard spot in the still wide-open Western Conference.
That makes for a surprisingly intriguing and important game for both the Penguins and Coyotes, who face-off later tonight at Gila River Arena.
The Penguins have dropped their last two in the first three games of their five-game Western road trip and could sorely use a win over the upstart Coyotes. Rick Tocchet‘s team has won four of its last five, including Wednesday night’s impressive 6-3 win over the Sharks. That victory — in a rarely nationally-televised game in Glendale — snapped the Sharks’ seven-game winning streak. That, as the Penguins can attest after their 5-2 loss in San Jose on Tuesday night, is no small feat.
“Just got to keep doing what we’re doing,” said Josh Archibald, 2017 Stanley Cup champion with Pittsburgh. “Hard work goes a long way with what we’ve been doing.”
What the Coyotes have been doing better than anyone is killing penalties. Arizona easily has the NHL’s top-ranked PK at 88.2 percent, and that should present a serous challenge to the Penguins’ fifth-ranked power play, which has gone 2-for-9 so far on their trip.
“I think it’s just hard work and trusting everybody,” explained Archibald, who is averaging 1:49 per game short-handed. “Everybody’s got a job out there and if one guy trusts the next guy to do their job and work together, I think that’s the biggest thing we have.”
The Coyotes also have 12 short-handed goals this season, second only to the Flames, who lead the league with 14. Arizona has four players with multiple short-handed markers, led by Michael Grabner with four.
“We’re really good at making good reads,” Tocchet said. “Obviously being aggressive, but being aggressive with somewhat of a plan. If you’re being aggressive and leaving things open all the time, that’s not good. But we’ve been aggressive and making smart decisions under those pressure points.”
Obviously, allowing short-handed goals has been a season-long issue for the Penguins, who have surrendered 10 of them, two alone on this trip (the Ducks’ Jakob Silfverberg and the Kings’ Anze Kopitar). Archibald says the Coyotes aren’t looking for shorthanded goals but they’ve been opportunistic when they’ve gotten chances.
“You can never look at that,” he says. “If you’re looking for offense … that’s when they’ll turn it around and score goals on you. You’ve got to work hard in your own end and if you get a chance, you’ve got to capitalize on it.”
Fortunately, for the Penguins they won’t have to deal with Grabner. The speedy veteran is one of a half-dozen regulars out of Arizona’s lineup, including Christian Dvorak, Jason Demers, Nick Schmaltz, Brad Richardson and backup goalie Antti Raanta.
Despite those injuries, the Coyotes have kept pace and are looking to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2011-12.
“Everyone’s excited we beat San Jose, but we have to be an even-keel teem and go back at it the right way,” Tocchet said.
• The Penguins’ expected lines/pairings tonight based on those used in practice Thursday:
• And for the Coyotes based off what they showed in practice Thursday:
• Patric Hornqvist, right winger, will miss his fourth straight game with a concussion.
• Justin Schultz, defenseman, is out after suffering a fractured leg on Oct. 13. He has been skating on his own and appears close to joining a full team practice
• Zach Aston-Reese, right winger, is out indefinitely with a broken left hand, but he did skate again Friday in sweats.
• Since they stayed out in Scottsdale, which is about a 45-minute drive from Glendale, the Penguins did not hold a formal morning skate but a handful of players did take the ice at Gila River Arena. Good thing they didn’t have a full morning skate here, too. The Penguins’ first bus for tonight’s game left Scottsdale at 3:30 (MT) and didn’t arrive in Glendale until 90 minutes later. Yep, traffic is a nightmare here and is one of the reasons why the Coyotes are pining for a rink closer to their practice facility in Scottsdale, which is northeast of the city.
• One of those who skated this morning was Patric Hornqvist. Though he is progressing, according to Mike Sullivan, Hornqvist will sit out tonight’s game and remains “day to day” though he could play tomorrow night vs. the Golden Knights.
• Welp, so much for a Matt Murray vs. Marc-Andre Fleury showdown tomorrow night on the Strip. Murray will get the start in goal vs. the Coyotes. That means that Casey DeSmith will most likely get the nod tomorrow night vs. Vegas.
• After having a full practice Thursday, the Coyotes held an optional morning skate.
• Tocchet confirmed that Darcy Kuemper will be in net. The 6-foot-5, 215-pound goalie has won his last four games and takes away a lot of the net.
“I don’t like when goalies are busy and flipping and flopping,” Tocchet said. “The last couple weeks he’s been steady. He’s holding his lanes.”
• Nobody was more sorry to see the Penguins lose their last two games than Tocchet, who was Sullivan’s assistant coach on Pittsburgh’s Cup-winning teams 2016 and ’17.
“We’re playing a team that’s not happy with their last effort,” he said. “I know this team. They don’t usually put two bad efforts together.”
• Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Dominik Simon had two points each in the Penguins’ 4-0 win over the Coyotes at PPG Paints Arena on Nov. 10. Tocchet said that Crosby is “one of the best corner guys I’ve seen” and Guentzel is a “helluva hockey player.” He says the Coyotes have to defend that line as a pack and limit not only Crosby’s chances, but those of Guentzel and right winger Bryan Rust.
• Tocchet was well aware of comments made last month by Pascal Dupuis on Quebec TV that suggested there was a rift between Sullivan and Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin. Tocchet basically just laughed it off.
“All I know is that to win Cups there’s got to be some barking and some stuff,” he said. “I bark at these guys here. I haven’t seen Shane Doan say anything bad. Look, it’s a bunch of guys who want to win. That’s all it is. That’s why they win.”
Face-off is scheduled for 9:08 p.m. (ET) at Gila River Arena. The Penguins are back in action tomorrow night when they take on Fleury and the Golden Knights in Las Vegas at 10:08 p.m. (ET) to wrap up their 12-day, five-game road trip. Following their bye week and the All-Star break, the Penguins won’t return to action until Jan. 28 when they host the Devils at PPG Paints Arena.
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