When they brainstormed how to combat the seemingly otherworldly skill of Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby, defensemen Zbynek Michalek and Oliver Ekman-Larsson decided they would protect the middle of the ice and push Crosby and his linemates to the outside.

Let them have shots from the boards, they thought.

But what turned out to be one of the pair’s most successful strategies had nothing to do with defending as Ekman-Larsson and Michalek combined for the game-winning goal – Michalek’s first in 83 games.

Package that with an impressive 23-save performance by goalie Mike Smith and the Coyotes pulled out a well-deserving 3-1 win over the Penguins Saturday at Jobing.com Arena in front of 17,362.

“We’re a team that doesn’t score many goals, so we have to make sure we play good defensively,” Michalek said. “That’s a given. Anything extra, we’ll take.”

After blocking a shot from Crosby on a previous penalty kill, Michalek let a slap shot go from the point and beat goalie Marc-Andre Fleury at 10:50 of the second. This was his first game against the Penguins since they traded him to the Coyotes at the 2012 draft.

It was also his first goal since March 5, 2012, when he scored against the Coyotes as a Penguin.

“It definitely felt good, and hopefully I don’t have to wait that long for the next goal,” he said.

Michalek also finished with four blocked shots in forming a dominant pairing with Ekman-Larsson, who played a game-high 27:23.

“Ollie was all-world there,” coach Dave Tippett. “That’s an unbelievable game by him.”

He was also physical when needed and had no problem standing up to center Evgeni Malkin.

“He slashed me over my hand, and I didn’t even have the puck,” Ekman-Larsson said. “So I lost it a little bit.”

The unit was tasked with shutting down Crosby, and they accomplished that. Crosby was held pointless and managed only two shots.

“It’s a good challenge for me and ‘Z’ and for everybody on the team,” Ekman-Larsson said. “I think we did a good job all night, so it was fun.”

Twice the Penguins went without a shot for more than 10 minutes – once in the first period and then again for the end of the second and into the third – and the Coyotes scored during both droughts.

“They like to come through the middle of the ice,” Michalek said. “So we wanted to clog the neutral zone, make sure they don’t get that speed through the middle of the ice, keep them on the outside and let them shoot from there.

“From there, Smitty is going to save all the shots. So just protect the middle of the ice and take the time and space away from them. I think we did that.”

Center Mike Ribeiro took a shot from the half-boards and the puck redirected off of Penguins defenseman Paul Martin’s stick before slipping past Fleury at 12:42 of the first.

The goal was the 200th of Ribeiro’s career. He also tallied an assist. With an assist on the play, center Antoine Vermette bumped his point streak to a career-high seven games. He has 10 points in that span.

That lead grew to two in the second when Michalek scored, but the Penguins made it 2-1 at 15:51 when Malkin was left alone on the back post. The Penguins wouldn’t find another shot until 8:01 of the third, and the Coyotes capitalized.

Winger Radim Vrbata broke out on a two-on-one but kept the shot for himself, wristing a shot five-hole on Fleury at 4:13 of the period.

Overall, the Coyotes limited the Penguins to 24 shots and blocked another 20. No doubt the defense was at least partly boosted by Smith’s effort. He was back between the pipes for the first time in almost a week and looked rejuvenated.

“You just want to come back in and play well once you’ve had some time off,” Smith said. “So I think it was nice to work on some things, kind of calm my game down a little bit, and then obviously a tough test coming in against a top team in the league. So there was some added motivation there, too, to play well against a top team.”

The challenge now is to repeat this performance. The same can be said for the Coyotes.