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Coyotes try to cool off surging Penguins

by Corey Masisak

PENGUINS (38-14-2) at COYOTES (25-19-10)


Last 10: Pittsburgh 7-2-1; Phoenix 4-5-1

Season series: This is the first of two games this season. The Penguins have won the past three contests against the Coyotes. Phoenix last defeated Pittsburgh on Oct. 7, 2009.

Big story: The Penguins could become the second team to reach 80 points this season, while the Coyotes need a win to stay on the heels of the Vancouver Canucks in the race for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference

Team Scope:

Penguins: An overtime loss on Nov. 25 left Pittsburgh with a 15-9-1 record and tied with the Tampa Bay Lightning for the 10th-most points in the NHL. Since that night, the Penguins have won 23 of 29 games (23-5-1) and could be in second place in the League standings by the end of Saturday night with a win and a loss by the Chicago Blackhawks to the San Jose Sharks.

Ten of the team's 16 losses have come when the club has scored less than two goals. The Penguins are 38-4-2 when they score at least two goals and 36-2-2 when they collect at least three goals. Backup goalie Jeff Zatkoff has been a beneficiary of that goal support. He began the season with two losses in October, but he's 9-0-1 since and the Penguins have scored 45 goals in his 12 starts. Zatkoff stopped 30 of 31 shots Thursday night to beat his former team, the Los Angeles Kings 4-1

"I think the guys were fighting hard for 'Zats' there throughout the game," coach Dan Bylsma said, "and at the end [they] just trying to get him the win."

Coyotes: Phoenix was one of those nine teams in front of the Penguins in the League standings just before Thanksgiving, but the Coyotes have gone in the opposition direction since. The last time they won more than two games in a row was five straight from Oct. 26-Nov. 5, and three of those victories came in shootouts.

They have 10 regulation wins since Oct. 29 and have lost 23 of their past 34 games (11-15-8). Phoenix has one game in hand on Vancouver and two on the Minnesota Wild, but unless there are more victories during the closing stretch of the season it will be a second straight without an invitation to the Stanley Cup Playoffs after reaching the conference finals for the first time in franchise history in 2012.

If they don't qualify, it will be because of games like a 3-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night. The Coyotes skated off the ice after one period with a 2-1 lead but did little offensively for the final 40 minutes.

"I don't even know what our level is because we're barely above average right now if we're average," captain Shane Doan said. "It's not acceptable, not even close."

Who's hot: Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby had his second-lowest scoring month of the season to date with 16 points in January, but he does have six in his past four contests. After going 11 games without a goal, Phoenix's Antoine Vermette now has eight in his past eight contests.

Injury report: The Penguins are without forwards Pascal Dupuis (knee), Beau Bennett (wrist), Joe Vitale (wrist) and Chris Conner (hand) and goaltender Tomas Vokoun (blood clot). … The Coyotes are healthy, though the team placed Tim Kennedy on waivers Friday.

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