PITTSBURGH — A year into the job, Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan’s daily message to his team has not changed. Just as he did when he took over an underachieving group last December, Sullivan wants the Penguins to "play the right way."
Play smart defensively. Push it up the ice. Don’t get caught up trying to make the fancy play. Just take the shot. Lots of them preferably. Repeat as necessary.
At the moment, there may be no team in the NHL doing it as well as the defending Stanley Cup champions.
Sidney Crosby left briefly after taking a stick to the face then returned to pick up his NHL-leading 21st goal and the Penguins crushed the Arizona Coyotes 7-0 on Monday night for their sixth straight victory.
Pittsburgh has outscored the opposition 36-14 during the run, including Crosby’s latest highlight reel score when he swatted a puck out of midair to make it 5-0 in the second period.
"I mean when you’re winning, it’s fun," Crosby said. "I think we’ve done a good job of limiting other team’s chances. When you’re doing that, you’re creating offense and giving yourself a chance, so I think we’ve done a good job at that."
Bryan Rust, Scott Wilson, Trevor Daley, Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino and Justin Schultz also scored for the Penguins, and 13 players recorded at least one point. Matt Murray finished with 32 saves while picking up his third career shutout as Pittsburgh pulled into a first-place tie with the New York Rangers atop the crowded Metropolitan Division.
"Sid’s been on a tear and has been playing inspired hockey and I think Geno’s line has very quietly been productive," Sullivan said. "When you get the third and fourth lines doing what they do … we’re finding offense throughout our lineup and that’s what’s helping us win games."
Arizona’s Mike Smith, the lone bright spot for a team with the fewest victories in the league, stopped 18 of 22 shots before being pulled midway through the second period. The Coyotes are 1-4-3 in their last eight.
"There’s a standard you have to play to in the NHL whether you’re a young guy or a veteran and we didn’t play or compete at an NHL level tonight," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. "That’s the score you get and that’s where we’re at today."
Crosby received treatment between the first and second periods after getting whacked in the mouth by Arizona’s Martin Hanzal. The sellout crowd cheered when the captain returned to the bench about three minutes into the second. The roar grew considerably louder when Crosby stood all alone in front of the Coyotes net and patiently waited for the rebound off Evgeni Malkin’s slap shot to fall below the crossbar before he took a swing at it, replicating a goal he scored against Dallas earlier this month when he smacked the puck off the back of Stars goaltender Antti Niemi.
"I think you just kind of hope you have enough time to wait for it to go below the cross bar and have a play at it," Crosby said. "Sometimes you put it where you want to. With the goal, I think he was looking for it up in the air, so I got lucky."
By then, the matter was already well in hand for Pittsburgh, which improved to 52-23-8 in the regular season since Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston on Dec. 12, 2015. Sullivan’s arrival galvanized an underachieving club and provided the spark that eventually ended with the Penguins capturing the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup last June.
Pittsburgh is right back in the thick of it once again behind Crosby, whose remarkable surge coincided with Sullivan’s promotion. Crosby’s 48 goals and 42 assists since Jan. 1, 2016 are the most in the NHL.
"When our special teams gets back up to where we know they can be, and if we continue to score like this and get great goaltending," Bonino said, "then we’re obviously a tough team."
NOTES: Louis Domingue filled in after Smith was pulled in the middle of the second period and made nine saves on 12 shots. … Pittsburgh went 2 for 7 on the power play. The Coyotes were 0 for 3 with the man advantage. … Arizona scratched Ds Connor Murphy and Kevin Connauton and F Anthony Duclair. … Pittsburgh scratched D Steve Olesky and C Eric Fehr.
Coyotes visit Detroit on Tuesday night. Arizona is 0-3-1 in the second game of back-to-backs this season.