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Blues block out Penguins, win 1-0

| Sunday, March 23, 2014, 3:38 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Blues' Roman Polak defends the Penguins' Sidney Crosby's as he looks to center the puck in the third period Sunday, March 23, 2014, at Consol Energy Center.

Matt Niskanen liked the Penguins' approach Sunday afternoon.

It almost, well, worked.

A 1-0 loss to the St. Louis Blues at Consol Energy Center looked a lot like a latter-round Stanley Cup playoff game with its tight, defensive style.

The Penguins went 0 for 4 in those last postseason, but Niskanen noticed differences between this loss to the Western Conference-leading Blues and the conference final defeats against Boston.

“We didn't alter from what we were trying to do,” Niskanen said. “We knew what kind of game it was going to be just because that's who they are. There's not going to be a lot of space. They play structure. They're always above the puck. You always have to go through at least three guys, so there's not a lot of rush chances.

“So, I thought we managed the puck really well. We played fast when we could. We went after them, forced a few turnovers on forechecks that we were able to either turn into zone-time or a quick chance at the net.

“That's good preparation for us. That's how it's going to be in April.”

Blues center David Backes' goal just after the expiration of center Evgeni Malkin's high-sticking minor penalty broke a scoreless third-period tie.

The Stanley Cup playoffs begin in about three weeks, and the Penguins (46-20-5, 97 points) will be there. Their magic number to clinch a playoff spot is in single digits, and they stand an outside chance of securing the Metropolitan Division title within a week.

Still, for a Penguins organization that plays to a Cup-or-bust tune, this loss to the Blues struck an off-chord. The Blues nicked somewhat from songbooks of the 2013 Bruins and 2010 Montreal Canadiens — opponents that took eight of 11 games from the Penguins in playoff series by basically backing off and congesting the goal crease at the expense of challenging offensively.

St. Louis' remix featured less backing off and more shot blocking.

The Penguins committed 10 giveaways to St. Louis' two, which is the number of even-strength goals coach Dan Bylsma's club has scored in the past five games against the Blues.

Franchise centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin combined for three goals and seven points in a 4-3 overtime win over Tampa Bay on Saturday. They spent the next day mostly working on the perimeter, often circling behind the cage but never finding a path to it or to teammates in the St. Louis goal crease.

“I saw a lot,” Blues backup goalie Brian Elliott said of the Penguins' 33 shots. “Obviously, the ones I didn't the guys were blocking and made big sacrifices in front of me.”

The Blues were credited with 25 blocked shots, though St. Louis coaches will chart that total much nearer the 40 mark.

Two blocks that were not counted came in the final 16 seconds, when the Penguins tried to pull even with goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (26 saves) pulled for an extra attacker. Neither Niskanen nor winger James Neal could get a shot attempt through a crowded middle.

The Blues also limited the Penguins to four shots on a 5-on-3 power play that included a minute and 32 seconds on fresh ice at the start of the second period. The Penguins used five forwards on that two-man advantage, and each was a left-handed shooter.

Crosby, Malkin, Neal and winger Chris Kunitz combined to attempt 32 shots but only 18 required a save from Elliott.

Reputably defensive-minded Blues coach Ken Hitchcock appeared satisfied with the way St. Louis' 48th victory looked even as he praised the Penguins, who lost at home in regulation for only the sixth time this season.

“Everyone knows whose those guys are,” Hitchcock said. “The fear factor (piques) your interest.”

The Penguins, Bylsma said, are interested in continuing to get “comfortable in situations” like the one presented by St. Louis because they know more is coming next month.

“We still want to do a better job in these games,” Crosby said, “and win them.”

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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