ST. LOUIS -- There would be no rollover game to launch them into the All-Star break. The Penguins knew that.
Their 3-2 shootout win Tuesday night against the St. Louis Blues at Scottrade Center was as tough a game as they have played, primarily because the Blues have evolved into one of the NHL's best teams in the span of a less than three months.
"They're a physical team and they just keep coming," said winger Chris Kunitz, who celebrated his 500th NHL game by scoring the deciding goal in the shootout.
Kunitz, the eighth shooter, put a backhander past St. Louis goaltender Brian Elliott, after Evgeni Malkin had scored for the Penguins and T.J. Oshie for the Blues to extend the Penguins' winning streak to seven games going into the All-Star break.
The winning streak overshadows six losses in a row that came right before it.
"We had a tough stretch that was definitely frustrating," said Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who, in his 22nd appearance in a row -- 20 of them, including the past eight, starts -- made several acrobatic and key saves among his 32. Five came in a furiously paced overtime.
"We had a nice response from our team and got those seven in a row," Fleury said. "It feels good. We can go in peace and relax."
Since Ken Hitchcock took over as coach in early November, the Blues not only have soared into solid playoff contention but also have been threatening to win a Western Conference or even NHL regular-season title. They have lost just three games in regulation at home.
"We've played some good hockey teams, and we've played some tight hockey games [and now] we come on the road and [play the team with] the best home record in the league right now, tough opponent, and get the win," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.
The Penguins' two All-Stars that will head to Ottawa this weekend, center Evgeni Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang, were held off the score sheet, although Malkin scored during the shootout. That ended Malkin's six-game goal streak.
Five-on-five play was a little scarce in the first period. The Penguins had two power plays, the Blues had one power play and there was two minutes of four-on-four.
The period ended with no scoring, but a tone was set -- lots of furious skating and physical play. Each team had 12 shots going into the second period. By the end of the game, St. Louis had doled out 32 hits, the Penguins, 27.
- Points earned in the standings during the winning streak: 14
- Goal margin by which the Penguins have outscored their opponents: 13
- Points for the line of Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Chris Kunitz: 29
- Points for last week's NHL No. 1 star, Evgeni Malkin -- 9 goals, 4 assists: 13
- Position in the Eastern Conference before the streak began: 9
- Position in the Eastern Conference as of this morning: 5
The Penguins next most-deserving player for an All-Star berth, winger James Neal, opened the scoring on a power play at 3:26 of the second to log his 100th career goal and 27th this season, matching his career high.
"We thought he was an All-Star when they first named the team," Bylsma said.
With St. Louis center David Backes in the penalty box for holding Malkin, Paul Martin dug the puck out of the left corner and fed Neal. From the left dot, Neal slipped a wrist shot in off the glove of Elliott to make it 1-0.
The Penguins increased their lead to 2-0 at 12:16 of the second on a play made possible because defenseman Deryk Engelland kept the puck in the offensive zone. He rifled a shot from the center point, and Steve Sullivan batted in the bouncing rebound.
Three minutes later, the Blues climbed to within 2-1. Penguins center Dustin Jeffrey turned the puck over at center ice, and Patrik Berglund, streaking toward the net, scored off of a feed by Chris Stewart.
Berglund tied it, 2-2, on a penalty shot at 5:04 of the third period.
He was hooked from behind by Letang on a short-handed breakaway to draw the opportunity. Moving down the slot, Berglund went from backhand to forehand and lifted the puck past Fleury's stick.
The NHL no doubt will look at Penguins winger Matt Cooke's hit to the shoulder of Barret Jackman that sent the Blues defenseman into the boards with 1:19 left in regulation.
In the shootout, Fleury gave up a goal only to Oshie among four St. Louis shooters, and Elliott stopped only Letang and Neal.
The Penguins do not play again until Tuesday when Toronto visits Consol Energy Center, so this game was going to be one that would stick around in their heads as the players -- except for All-Stars -- head into a long break.
"From where our team was two weeks ago, having lost six in a row, to answer by winning seven in a row going into the break was a significant answer by our team.," Bylsma said.
"We'll take the seven in a row and we'll take the break, but we'll look to start again when we come back."
For much more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Shelly Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org , 412-263-1721. First Published January 25, 2012 5:00 AM