Penguins complicate Pacific race by beating Coyotes

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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?