Marc Andre Fleury

Penguins complicate Pacific race by beating Coyotes


Zbynek Michalek hasn’t always been the asset that the Pittsburgh Penguins were hoping for when they signed him in 2010 – at least for his price – but he has a way of bringing it against his former team.

Michalek scored a rare goal to help Pittsburgh beat the Phoenix Coyotes 2-1, giving the Pens their sixth win in a row while bumping the idle Dallas Stars up to first place in the Pacific Division.

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Pittsburgh powers on

It’s easy to zero in on Michalek for his unusual contribution, but as usual, it was about the Penguins’ big guns. Evgeni Malkin crawled ahead of Steven Stamkos in the Art Ross race by nabbing point No. 81 on an assist on Chris Kunitz’ eventual game-winner, but Marc-Andre Fleury was the real star.

Fleury stopped 36 out of 37 shots to push his season record to 35-14-3, with six wins and a non-decision in his last seven appearances. As obvious a choice as Malkin will be for the Hart Trophy voting if he stays on his lofty pace, it’s not crazy to say that MAF has been almost as valuable to the Penguins’ success.

Pacific roam

The Coyotes’ loss makes for a really intriguing race for the Pacific Division crown. Let’s take a simple look at the situation at hand.

First in Pacific, third in West: Dallas – 35-26-5 for 75 points; 16 games remaining; 35 wins (30 regulation/OT)
Second in Pacific, seventh in West: Phoenix – 33-24-9 for 75 points; 16 GR; 33 wins (28 reg/OT)
Third in Pacific, eighth in West: San Jose – 33-24-7 for 73 points; 18 GR; 33 wins (27 reg/OT)
Fourth in Pacific, ninth in West: Los Angeles – 30-23-12 for 72 points; 17 GR; 30 wins (26 reg/OT)
Fifth in Pacific, 12th in West: Anaheim – 28-28-10 for 66 points; 16 GR; 28 wins (25 reg/OT)

Obviously there is very little separating the Stars and Coyotes, but they cannot take their two other major divisional rivals lightly, either. The Sharks are a more serious immediate threat from tie-breaker perspectives (two games in hand, comparable wins) but the Kings are trending up more than the Sharks. (San Jose is on an unsettling 2-7-1 streak.)

Ultimately, it’ll come down to closing ability and schedule. There are plenty of interesting stretches for all the teams in the last month of the season, but I cannot help but look at a season-ending home-and-home between the Kings and Sharks as an especially invigorating stretch of (potential) do-or-die hockey.

Who do you think takes the puzzling Pacific?

Niemi blanks Pens, notches two assists in Stars debut

Antti Niemi, Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist

DALLAS (AP) — Antti Niemi recorded his 33rd career shutout and assisted on two goals in his Dallas debut, as the Stars beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-0 on Thursday night in the season opener for both.

Ales Hemsky had a power-play goal and an assist.

Rookie Matthias Janmark scored on his first shot on his first shift in an NHL game to make it 1-0. The Stars acquired Niemi and Janmark in trades earlier this year.

Dallas scored on two of five power plays. Jamie Benn, the NHL’s leading scorer last season, had a power-play goal in the third period.

Niemi made 37 saves to improve his career record against the Penguins to 5-1-1. He withstood a flurry in the final minute after Pittsburgh pulled goalie Marc-Andre Fleury for an extra skater.

Fleury had 21 saves.

The Stars are 4-0-1 in their last five home games against Pittsburgh, and have won three in a row overall.

Janmark skated down the slot, took a pass from Hemsky and shot between Fleury’s legs at 1:39 of the first.

The Penguins dominated the latter half of the period, but couldn’t score. Niemi’s best stop was a reaching glove save of Rod Scuderi’s drive from the blue line with less than 3 minutes remaining. Pittsburgh outshot the Stars 10-4 in the first.

Hemsky scored at 5:42 of the second on Dallas’ first power play. His shot from the top of the right faceoff circle went in over Fleury’s right shoulder.

The Penguins again had an advantage in shots, 13-11. Pittsburgh had chances in close, but Niemi turned those away. Midway through the second, John Klingberg cleared away a loose puck from in front of the net.

Seven seconds into the Stars’ fourth power play of the third period, Jamie Benn tipped in Jason Spezza‘s shot from the right point.

NOTES: Dallas acquired Janmark as part of a March trade that sent Erik Cole to Detroit. The rookie had been playing in the Swedish Hockey League. . San Jose traded Niemi’s rights to the Stars in June for a seventh-round draft pick. Also making their Dallas debuts were LW Patrick Sharp and D Johnny Oduya, teammates with Chicago’s Stanley Cup champions last season. . In his first game for the Penguins, Phil Kessel played in his 447th straight game. . Pittsburgh was 0 for 3 on the power play.

Fabbri’s first spoils McDavid’s debut as Blues down Oilers

Robby Fabbri, Justin Schultz
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ST. LOUIS (AP) — Rookie Robby Fabbri scored the tiebreaking goal midway through the third period to help the St. Louis Blues beat Edmonton 3-1 Thursday night, spoiling Oilers rookie Connor McDavid‘s NHL debut.

Vladimir Tarasenko had the tying goal for the Blues near the midpoint of the second period, and Troy Brouwer added an empty-netter with 18 seconds remaining in the third. Brian Elliott finished with 23 saves.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scored in the first period for Edmonton and Cam Talbot had 28 saves.

McDavid, the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, took 22 shifts, played 18:07 and was on the ice for Brouwer’s goal. He had two shots on goal, and struggled on faceoffs – winning only three of 13.

Fabbri, a 19-year-old forward — and McDavid’s childhood friend — was also playing in his first NHL game. The Blues’ first-round pick in 2014 was one of three rookies in the St. Louis lineup, joining defensemen Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson.

Nugent-Hopkins gave the Oilers a 1-0 lead late in the first period with a fluke power-play goal. He lost a face-off but when Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo tried to clear the puck it bounced off Alexander Steen and past Brian Elliott. Nugent-Hopkins was credited with the unassisted power-play goal with 2:38 remaining in the period.

Tarasenko tied it a 9:10 of the second after getting loose on a breakaway with a stretch pass from Alex Pietrangelo and beating Talbot through his legs.

Tarasenko, who signed an eight-year, $60 million extension in the offseason, was the last Blues player to score in his debut.

NOTES: McDavid and F Anton Slepyshev made their NHL debuts for the Oilers. … St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina dropped the ceremonial first puck. … The attendance was announced as standing room-only 19,327.