By Dan Scifo
From the Point Contributor
PITTSBURGH — In the grand scheme of things, maybe the Pittsburgh Penguins’ one-goal loss to the St. Louis Blues Sunday at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh isn’t so bad after all.
The Penguins, embroiled in a tight-checking, defensive battle normally reserved for the middle of April, came out on the wrong end of a 1-0 loss to the Blues, thanks to a David Backes goal midway through the third period.
But the Penguins feel Sunday’s game will go a long way toward preparing for the grind of playoff hockey.
“I think in a game like this one, we have to give them credit for being good defensively and playing a hard game,” Penguins’ head coach Dan Bylsma said. “But we were hard to play against.
“They didn’t get a lot of opportunities. There were not a lot of ‘Grade A’ opportunities or freeness to the net in this game and we want to play that type of game.”
Backes scored the lone goal of the game — his 24th of the year — at 8:40 of the third, just seconds after a high-sticking call to Evgeni Malkin expired. Backes, situated in front of the net, tipped Alex Steen’s shot from the point past a screened Marc-Andre Fleury, who made 26 saves.
“I saw (Backes) raise his stick for the shot,” Fleury said. “There were a bunch of people in front. I tried to cover some net, but I didn’t see it go in.”
Blues’ goaltender Brian Elliott, who hasn’t faced the Pens since 2012, turned aside all 33 shots for his 16th win and third shutout of the season.
“I saw a lot,” Elliott said. “Obviously, the ones I didn’t, the guys were blocking and made big sacrifices in front of me.
“When you’re in a tight game like that against a good team, the guys kind of rose up to the challenge.”
Elliott was at his best late in the third when he robbed Lee Stempniak on a one-timer near the post and watched as a puck, centered by Sidney Crosby, hit off a defenseman’s skate in the crease and trickled wide of the net.
“I thought it was a hard game,” Bylsma said. “There wasn’t a ton of room or scoring chances out there for either team and when you had them, they were contested hard.”
Special teams are always a great equalizer, but the Penguins struggled against the Blues, going 0-for-5 one day after the power play produced three goals during a 4-3 overtime win against Tampa Bay.
“It was a tough game and both teams played hard,” Crosby said. “It would’ve been nice to get one on the power play. Obviously that’s the big story here.
“If we score on the power play, we give ourselves a chance. We battled and didn’t find a way to score.”
St. Louis opened the second period successfully killing a two-man advantage that spanned 1:32 after T.J. Oshie was whistled for hooking and Jaden Schwartz was sent off for tripping.
The Penguins, after starting the period with five shots during the two-man advantage, didn’t register another until another power play almost 13 minutes later.
“That’s a big moment in the game,” Penguins’ defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “We had over a minute and a half of five-on-three with fresh ice.
“I don’t know what the statistics are, but usually when you have that long of a five-on-three and you don’t score, it’s not looking good for the game. It didn’t kill us, but you’d like to score there.”
The Penguins knew what to expect from the Blues after they had trouble cracking the St. Louis defense in the only other matchup between the teams this season, a 2-1 road loss in November. The Blues are 4-0-1 in their last five games against the Penguins.
“We knew what kind of a game it was going to be just because that’s who they are,” Niskanen said. “There’s not going to be a lot of space out there.
“They play good structure, they’re always above the puck and you always have to go through at least three guys. There’s not going to be a lot of rush chances against them.”
The Blues, making their first visit to Pittsburgh since November 2011, entered the game with the second-best record in the NHL, ranked No. 3 in the league in goals against. St. Louis opened March going 8-0-1 and allowing just 15 goals during the nine-game stretch. But the Blues struggled the previous two contests, surrendering seven goals during the first two games of a four-game road trip.
They were back to their old ways on Sunday, avoiding their first three-game losing streak of the season.
“We just kind of cleared lanes and I was able to see the ones they took,” Elliott said. “Whenever guys are moving big guys out of the way, it just helps and you saw guys get in front of shots, block them and clear them down.”
The Penguins scored a combined 13 goals during the recent three-game unbeaten stretch, keyed by Malkin, who netted two goals and a helper on the game-winning goal during a 4-3 overtime win Saturday against Tampa Bay.
The Penguins, 19-2-2 in their previous 23 home games hoped to finish a sweep of back-to-back weekend home games, topping one of the best teams in the league, but they fell one goal short.
“We still want to do a better job in these games and win them,” Crosby said. “We have done a pretty good job of being patient when we’ve been in these games.
“It’s weird the way things work. We get a few big power-play goals and an opportunity to do that today and we didn’t. It’s not that we didn’t try or do a good job, we just didn’t put the puck in the net.”
NOTES: The past five games between the Penguins and Blues have been decided by one goal…Craig Adams played in his 277th consecutive game, the third-longest streak in team history.