As measuring-stick games go, the Pittsburgh Penguins couldn’t ask for a much better test than when they hosted the St. Louis Blues Sunday. The Blues lead the Western Conference and earned that spot with a physical, defensive style of play – not unlike that of the Boston Bruins, who sit above the Penguins to lead the Eastern Conference and swept them out of the Conference Finals last spring.
For the second time this season, the Penguins fell just short, losing 1-0 against the stingy Blues; they also dropped their other meeting by one goal, 2-1, at St. Louis in November. Goaltender Brian Elliott was solid, stopping 33 shots to earn the shutout, and the St. Louis penalty kill was perfect, stopping all five of Pittsburgh’s opportunities with the man advantage. Still, the loss underscored the Penguins’ struggles to generate quality chances against tough defensive teams.
“They’re tough to generate much offense against; a big team,” said defenseman Matt Niskanen. “That’s a good game for us to play because that’s how it’s going to be in the postseason; things are going to be tight. I thought we did a pretty good job today, except for finding a goal.”
Things might have been different if the Penguins’ top-ranked power play had found a way to score, particularly with a two-man advantage for a minute and a half to start the third period.
“We have done a pretty good job of being patient when we’ve been in these kinds of [low-scoring] games, but we also have to realize how important a power play like that is,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “It’s just weird the way things work. You look at last game [Saturday’s 4-3 overtime win over Tampa] and we got a few big power-play goals, and we have an opportunity to do that here today and didn’t. It’s not that we didn’t try; we just didn’t put the puck in the net.”
The Blues limited the Penguins’ opportunities by taking away the middle and forcing them to shoot from the outside, then blocking shots and clearing out rebounds with a strong net-front presence. For the Penguins, solving that might simply be a matter of giving up the search for the perfect shot.
“I think [it’s] just getting guys in front,” Crosby said. “You can’t pass up shots because teams are trying to block; that’s what good teams do. Sometimes that can kind of deter you from taking shots because they are trying to block so many, and you wait for the perfect lane.
“If anything, you just have to stick with it and take the shots they give you. If they block them, they block them, but you want to get shots behind them – because, if they’re committed to blocking shots, they’re not going to be able to cover the guys behind them. If you can get some loose pucks in the crease and have guys there trying to find it, we’re going to give ourselves a good chance.”
For the Blues, meanwhile, deterring the Penguins meant they executed their game plan to perfection. In two of the more notable statistics, the Blues blocked 25 shots to the Penguins’ 12, and forced Pittsburgh into 10 giveaways while St. Louis had only two.
“There’s so much firepower there, [the penalty kill] was huge,” said Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock. “And I thought we did a good job checking all night and, obviously, guys blocked shots at the right time. Between the goalie and the PK, I thought we got in lanes and made them play a little more static than they probably wanted to today.”
Getting in lanes threw a wrench into the Penguins’ breakout. “We had to ad-lib a few times and pass the puck into the zone” as opposed to gaining the zone by carrying it, Niskanen said. “We had the right mentality; we knew how they were going to play and we were ready for it.
“I thought we did a pretty good job of doing what we wanted to – managing the puck, playing quick, generating some chances. Would’ve liked to score on one of those power plays, especially the five-on-three, I think, but that’s how it’s going to be in April. It’s good for our team.”
As the Penguins wrap up their final 11 games of the regular season, they’ll see a mix of teams that are near the top of the standings, battling for playoff spots or playing for pride. And their focus will be on playing the right way heading into the playoffs and learning from games like the one against St. Louis, a possible opponent if the Penguins would find themselves in the Stanley Cup Final.
“That’s too far ahead right now but, if the last couple games are any indication of the way [our] teams would match up, I think it’s pretty physical,” Crosby said. “Both teams, for not playing each other [often], don’t seem to like each other too much, so it would be pretty intense. Just tight games, a lot of guys who play physical – it’s not a handful, it’s right through the lineup – and I think both teams expect that when we play each other.
“I think we’re judging ourselves and evaluating ourselves on making sure we’re playing a playoff style of game going into the playoffs. So, hopefully, with that mentality, we’ll get our points.”
“In a game like this one, I think you have to give [St. Louis] credit for being good defensively, playing a hard game, but I don’t think you can take away from the way our team played,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “We were hard to play against, didn’t give them a lot of opportunities. We were hard around our net; there’s not going to be a lot of grade-A opportunities or free looks at the net in this game.
“We have to and want to be able to play that type of game where it’s 0-0 [or] 1-1 going into the third in a tie game. That’s been a focus for our team. Being comfortable with that situation is exactly what we expected in this game, and that’s something we know, expect and want to develop.”