PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma wants his high-powered team to get used to playing tight-checking playoff hockey before the post-season begins next month.
St. Louis doesn’t need the lure of the playoffs as an excuse to get stingy. The space-eating Blues have been doing it all year, and it showed in a taut 1-0 road win on Sunday.
Frustrating the NHL’s best power play during a pivotal two-man disadvantage at the start of the second period, the Blues continued their mastery of the Eastern Conference by beating the Penguins the way they’ve beaten so many teams this season.
The room to manoeuvr that Pittsburgh stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin usually enjoy disappeared as St. Louis clogged passing lanes and dictated play defensively.
David Backes deflected a slap shot by Alexander Steen past Marc-Andre Fleury midway through the third period for the game’s only goal and Brian Elliott stopped 33 shots to pick up his fourth shutout of the season as the Blues moved three points clear of Chicago in the race for the best record in the Western Conference.
“When you’re in a tight game like that against a good team, the guys kind of rose up to the challenge and I tried to make a couple saves and get the rebounds out of the zone and they did the rest,” Elliott said.
Fleury made 26 saves for the Penguins but watched Backes’ deflection carom off his glove and into the net just after a penalty against Malkin expired.
“I just saw the guy 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.
St. Louis bounced back from a one-sided loss at Philadelphia on Saturday to improve the league’s best road record to 23-11-3. Pittsburgh’s top-ranked power play went 0-for-5 a day after scoring three times in a win over Tampa Bay.
When Elliott wasn’t getting a pad on the puck, his teammates were. The Blues blocked 25 shots, with the Penguins’ frustration growing at every turn as the Blues improved to 20-5-2 against the Eastern Conference, the best interconference record in the league.
Pittsburgh had a 5-on-3 power play at the beginning of the second period for more than 90 seconds without being able to sneak something by Elliott. Most of the time the Penguins struggled generating a shot as the Blues effectively disrupted Pittsburgh’s rhythm.
“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.”
Malkin was called for high-sticking 9:17 into the third and he was barely out of the box and back on the ice when Backes gave St. Louis the lead. The puck cycled to the point and Alexander Steen fired a slap shot that Backes found a way to nick as it sailed by. His 24th goal of the year proved more than enough.
Elliott wobbled several times—including at least two saves where it appeared the puck was creeping to the goal line when the whistle blew—but didn’t collapse. When the clock expired after one last clear up the zone, the game ended with the unusual sight of Malkin trying to mix it up with Alex Pietrangelo.
Bylsma said coming into an important weekend he wanted his team to get used to playing tightly contested, low-scoring games. Pittsburgh survived one on Saturday, rallying for a 4-3 overtime win against the streaking Lightning that featured 40 minutes of clamp-down hockey and 22 minutes of frantic play.
The Blues, who have positioned themselves into contenders in the West by sealing off the net, would not be lulled into the kind of end-to-end stretches that allow the Penguins to run free.
“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 kinds of games.”
At times, Bylsma wonders if his club was too patient, particularly in the first period.
“The first 20 minutes we backed them off with speed,” he said. “We had some opportunities and needed to have more of a drive and shoot mentality.”
NOTES: The Penguins played with seven defencemen instead of six, a move Bylsma said was needed in a game where he knew open ice would be at a premium. … St. Louis plays in Toronto on Tuesday while the Penguins host Phoenix on Tuesday.