Penguins expect plenty of hard-hitting action against the Blues

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Sidney Crosby is a pretty earnest guy, especially when talking about his work.

So, when Crosby says he’s genuinely looking forward to spending a little quality time with the St. Louis Blues tonight, there’s no reason to doubt him.

But plenty of reasons to wonder why he —and so many teammates – would feel that way.

OK, perhaps it’s not all that difficult to understand, because high-caliber athletes and teams like to test themselves against quality opponents. Still, nothing about the Blues suggests the Penguins should expect a particularly pleasant or painless visit to the Scottrade Center.

The Blues have the NHL’s second-most productive offense, averaging 3.43 goals per game. Their team defense ranks sixth, giving up an average of just 2.29.

The league’s most prolific goal-scorer this season — Alex Steen (14 in 14 games) — is on their payroll. So is Alex Pietrangelo, who ranks third in scoring among defensemen. And David Backes, one of hockey’s finest defensive forwards, who also is good for a point per game.

And if the stifling defense and offensive talent aren’t enough to overwhelm opponents, St. Louis is capable of pretty much pounding other teams into submission.

“I’d say St. Louis is probably the most physical team in the league,” Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said Friday.

That obviously is a subjective assessment — the Blues have been credited with 272 hits, which actually tied for third fewest in the league before Friday — but one Orpik’s teammates don’t dispute.

“It’s going to be one of those physical, tough, hard-to-get-to-places-on-the-ice [games],” left winger Chris Kunitz said. “You’re going to have to drive through a body, take a body check.

“You’re going to have to take some whacks to get to the front of the net and to be able to make plays. … It’s going to be one of those games where the ice feels a little bit smaller.”

Backes is a big part of that, and not only because at 6 feet 3, 221 pounds, he takes up more space that most guys. His strong two-way game is made even more effective by his ability to hit hard and often, and some off-the-charts intangibles.

“He’s a competitive guy who plays hard,” said Crosby who, coincidentally enough, is a competitive guy who plays hard.

Although Blues coach Ken Hitchcock hasn’t divulged his plans for personnel matchups, it seems safe to assume that the only way Backes would be able to get any closer to Crosby tonight would be if they were handcuffed.

Crosby hasn’t had to contend with Backes —– who he might well face with Backes in a Team USA sweater at the Olympics in February — since the 2011-12 season, but embraces the challenge inherent in battling another Alpha male.

“Not that you look forward to certain parts of it,” Crosby said. “But the competition part, that’s always fun when you’re playing new teams.”

Steen isn’t quite as much of a stranger to the Penguins, because he broke into the league in the Eastern Conference, with Toronto. And, while none of them necessarily expected him to be on a goal-per-game pace, they don’t find anything fluky about his start, either.

“He’s one of those guys who’s really well-rounded,” Orpik said. “He’s good in every area. It’s not like there’s one part of his game you can key on. He’s just one of those guys who never cheats on plays. He gets rewarded for hard work.”

Steen, who has a career-best nine-game points streak, is the fifth player since the start of the 1999-2000 season to get at least 14 goals in his team’s first 14 games.

“He brings it every night and, right now, he’s seeing the benefit of that,” Crosby said. “He’s scoring some goals, but, whether he’s scoring like that or not, he’s pretty effective, pretty consistent.”

Although the Penguins, along with everyone else who watches highlight shows, can’t help but be familiar with high-profile Blues such as Steen, they don’t know as much about all St. Louis’ personnel as they do players from Eastern Conference clubs.

That won’t affect the way they prepare for the game, however, and taking on a team they face only a couple times each winter actually enhances the appeal of this game for some players.

“You don’t change the way you play, but you definitely try to tweak things, based on who you’re playing,” Crosby said. “That’s a fun part of the game, adjusting and finding ways to succeed.”

Dave Molinari: and Twitter @MolinariPG.

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