PITTSBURGH -- The Phoenix Coyotes, already off to a rough start in March, picked the wrong month to take on Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
No wonder the Coyotes -- who were nearly unbeatable in February -- might be yearning for another change in the calendar only five days into the new month. The Penguins? Right now, they don't want to change anything, especially their goalie.
Fleury, the NHL's version of Mr. March, turned aside 36 shots, defenseman Zbynek Michalek scored what for him is an infrequent goal – against his former team, no less – and the Penguins won their sixth in a row by holding off the Coyotes 2-1 Monday night at Consol Energy Center.
Chris Kunitz was set up by Evgeni Malkin for Pittsburgh's other goal in a two-goal first period, with Malkin getting his 499th career point, and the Penguins extended their second-longest winning streak of the season. They won eight in a row from Jan. 13-31.
They're getting scoring up and down their lineup during this run, as evidenced by Michalek's goal 11:44 into the game -- his first since Oct. 17 against Winnipeg and the only one he's scored at Consol since last March 14. The Penguins have gotten seven goals from seven different players in their last two games, outscoring Colorado and Phoenix by a combined 7-2.
Fleury hasn't needed all that support, but he was kept especially busy as the Coyotes threw 12 shots at him in the first period and 15 more during a very active second period. Phoenix didn't get to him until a 3-on-2 rush created by a faceoff win led to Ray Whitney's 21st goal 1:27 into the third. Whitney has scored five of his last six games.
That wasn't enough to rattle Fleury, who has his own personal six-game winning streak going. He has consistently been at his best in March, going 41-11-8 since 2006-07 during the month when division titles are often won and playoff spots are decided.
Fleury (35-14-3), sometimes overlooked in discussions regarding the NHL's elite goalies, is only one win behind League leader Pekka Rinne of Nashville, who has 36 victories.
"That's good, but I don't know I'm not chasing anything," Fleury said. "I just want to keep winning, getting points as a team and climbing in the standings."
Fleury was chosen as the Penguins' MVP by his teammates last season, and he's been just as good this season.
"He was our best player, and he needed to be," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "I thought the Coyotes played a hard, fast game and had a number of opportunities, against which he was extremely strong. … He has been real solid, with the consistency being the biggest thing, his ability to make the big save. Tonight he was the difference in the game."
The Coyotes came in as the Pacific Division leaders with 75 points, but failed for the third consecutive game to pick up any points after gaining 23 of a possible 24 while going 11-0-1 in February. In March, they have lost to Calgary and Columbus at home and to Pittsburgh at Consol, where the Penguins have won 10 of 11.
Again, the first period proved troublesome for the Coyotes, who have been outscored 12-2 in the opening period over their last seven games.
"We've been chasing the game every single night for the last four or five, and the last three have cost us," captain Shane Doan said. "We felt we controlled the game for most of the game. We wanted to get our game turned around, we weren't happy with our last two games at all, and tonight we played closer to what we need to."
Except for that start.
Michalek, teamed up recently with Brooks Orpik on what Bylsma apparently envisions as his shutdown pairing, made it 1-0 by collecting Jordan Staal’s drop pass and beating goalie Mike Smith with a wrist shot from the edge of the right circle.
Both of Pittsburgh's goals were to Smith's blocker side, though Michalek said, "Honestly, I wasn't aiming. I just tried to put the puck on the net."
Michalek didn't take extra satisfaction in scoring against the team he played for from 2005-10, saying, "I've got a lot of friends on their team and I knew it was a huge game for them, battling for a playoff spot, so I've got mixed feelings … but that's how it is sometimes."
Kunitz pushed the lead to 2-0 as Malkin extended his scoring streak to eight games (6 goals, 6 assists). Malkin carried the puck along the wall and, despite being checked hard by two defenders, managed to push it ahead to Kunitz, who beat Smith with a hard wrist shot from the right circle at 14:45 for his 19th goal.
"Those are ones that can't go in when your team is fragile," Smith said.
The assist gave Malkin a one-point edge, 81-80, over Steven Stamkos of idle Tampa Bay for the NHL scoring lead. With his next point, Malkin will become the ninth player in Penguins history with at least 500 points; currently, he has 196 goals and 303 assists.
The Kunitz-Malkin-James Neal line has accounted for 53 of Pittsburgh’s 114 goals since Dec. 10.
The second period lacked scoring, but not much else.
An acrobatic Fleury made three saves from as many positions in a matter of seconds halfway through the period to maintain Pittsburgh's two-goal edge. Not long after that, three Coyotes and two Penguins were sent to the penalty box following a skirmish that began when Smith and Pittsburgh forward Matt Cooke became tangled inside the net; both Smith and Cooke were called for roughing.
In the third, Pittsburgh stayed in the lead by killing off a late Phoenix power play. Defenseman Matt Niskanen, trying to prevent what looked to be a certain goal, hooked Antoine Vermette off his skates in the crease as Vermette was trying to tap the puck into a wide-open net.
"I thought our compete level was very good," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said. "We did a lot of things hard, and it's unfortunate we didn't get rewarded around the net a little more. We created some opportunities there we didn't capitalize on."
Phoenix was 0-for-2 with the man advantage against a Penguins penalty-killing unit that has allowed only one power-play goal in 54 attempts against Western Conference teams – one reason why Pittsburgh is 12-2-3 against the opposing conference.