The Pittsburgh Penguins have won 20 games this season.
Many, if not most, were more impressive than their 4-1 victory over Arizona at Mullett Arena Sunday evening.
But it’s possible that none have been more important.
Beating the Coyotes — something they’ve done in each of the past 10 meetings — allowed them to pull out of a 0-4-2 skid and was just their second victory in the past nine games (2-5-2).
It didn’t necessarily get their season back on track, but it did pull them out of their death spiral through the Eastern Conference standings, at least temporarily.
They are 20-13-6 and tied with the New York Islanders for fifth place in the Metropolitan Division, five points behind the New York Rangers. The Penguins have two games in hand on both.
To be sure, there were some important positives for the Penguins in this game. Casey DeSmith was outstanding, stopping 23 of 24 shots, Jake Guentzel broke out of his goal-scoring slump with a pair and Sidney Crosby had two assists.
Still, the list of things they did well was exceeded by the one of all that left room for improvement — finding a way to have the power play stop being a glaring liability comes immediately to mind — although a team in their position should be grateful simply to get the two points and prepare to deal with the details later.
“It’s a real important win for us, no matter how you get it,” Mike Sullivan said.
The Penguins, in keeping with their miseries of late, didn’t need much time to begin self-sabotaging in the first period.
Just 56 seconds after the opening faceoff, Marcus Pettersson picked up a cross-checking minor. They managed to get through that shorthanded situation without incident, but their luck run out a few minutes later.
Coyotes forward Barrett Hayton, positioned at the top of the Penguins’ crease, steered a Clayton Keller feed from the right side past DeSmith for a 1-0 lead at 5:18.
Although the Penguins generated only two shots on goal during the first 13-plus minutes of play, they nearly pulled even when Crosby had a chance from the inner edge of the left circle, but he was unable to beat goalie Karel Vejmelka, who denied Guentzel on the rebound.
They had another opportunity to tie when Arizona defenseman Juuso Valimaki was penalized for holding Jason Zucker at 16:37, but were unable to manufacture a shot on goal while he was in the box. That ran the Penguins’ power play drought to 0-for-16.
Being shut down so thoroughly by Arizona is no small feat: They Coyotes had allowed at least one power-play goal in seven of their previous eight games and entered the game with the 26th-ranked penalty-kill in the league.
DeSmith was tested several times during the first five-plus minutes of the second period, and his work was rewarded when Guentzel swept a Crosby pass into the net from the right side of the crease at 5:56. The goal, which also netted an assist for Jan Rutta, was Guentzel’s 16th of the season but first in nine games.
It apparently was enough to remind him how much fun it is to score, because Guentzel did it again little more than three minutes later to put the Penguins up, 2-1.
He beat Vejmelka from below the right circle at 9:11, capping a sequence that yielded assists for Bryan Rust and Crosby.
A double-minor for high-sticking Brian Dumoulin assessed to Hayton at 12:37 gave the Pittsburgh Penguins an exquisite opportunity to pad their lead, but they got only two shots on goal — both in the final 70 seconds of the four-minute advantage — and never seriously threatened.
Lest anyone not take their power-play struggles at face value, they also failed to capitalize on tripping minors called on Patrik Nemeth (17:34) and Jakob Chychrun (19:01).
That included a 33-second overlap during which the Penguins had a two-man advantage; however, the only scoring chance then belonged to Coyotes penalty-killer Nick Bjugstad, who DeSmith denied on a breakaway.
“The breakaway was a huge save,” Sullivan said.
The Penguins got an insurance goal from Zucker at 10:58 of the third, as he took a feed from Evgeni Malkin, cut across the front of the net, then threw a backhander past Vejmelka from a harsh angle to the right of the net.
The Penguins followed that with another unproductive power play, giving them an even half-dozen for the game and extending their four-game slump to 0-for-21.
But Jeff Carter put the game out of Arizona’s reach by scoring into an empty net at 18:55 to close out the scoring.