Penguins fall to St. Louis Blues, 1-0

This is why winning seven of their first eight games in October mattered.

Why running up that 12-1 streak that started in late November and spilled over into December was really important.

Why kicking off 2014 with a 7-1-1 surge was so significant.

Those bursts, when the Penguins accumulated points with stunning regularity, allowed them to build a virtually insurmountable advantage over the rest of the Metropolitan Division.

Especially teams such as Philadelphia and Washington which spent the early portion of the season looking as if they were just being introduced to the sport of ice hockey.

What the Penguins did earlier this winter effectively inoculated them against any major impact from the kind of lackluster stretch they're enduring now, even though several Metropolitan clubs -- including the Flyers and Capitals -- have strung together some pretty nice records lately.

Despite going 2-3-1 in their past six games, including a 1-0 loss Sunday to St. Louis at Consol Energy Center, the Penguins remain 14 points ahead of the second-place Flyers with just three weeks remaining in the regular season.

Oh, they've become a long shot to get the top seed in the Eastern Conference, which Boston has seized by virtue of a 12-game winning streak, but even a total meltdown probably wouldn't be enough to cost them the Metropolitan title.

"We definitely built ourselves a nice cushion, but we still want to finish first in the conference," center Brandon Sutter said. "First in the league, too. Obviously, this loss doesn't help that."

Actually, losing to the Blues might have dealt a mortal blow to any reasonable opportunity the Penguins had of leading the NHL in points.

That's according to no less an authority than coach Dan Bylsma, who said before the game that "we don't have a chance unless we win this game."

While the Penguins (46-20-5) didn't get any points out of the St. Louis game, they did take away the knowledge that they are capable of competing on even terms against a team such as the Blues, who have rugged play and stifling defense encoded in their DNA.

"That's a tough team, a big, physical team that's tough to play against," Penguins left winger Tanner Glass said. "[The Blues play] a physical brand of hockey, a playoff-type of hockey.

"We played a good defensive game. We were responsible all over the ice, I thought, limited our turnovers. Played a tough brand of hockey, too. It could have gone either way."

The outcome tilted in the Blues' favor because, three seconds after a high-sticking minor to Penguins center Evgeni Malkin expired in the third period, an Alexander Steen shot caromed off the leg of Blues center David Backes and past Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.

The goal was inadvertent -- "I thought I blocked another one there, but I turned around and it was in the net," Backes said -- but it was one more puck than the Penguins could get by St. Louis goalie Brian Elliott, who rejected 33 shots.

The Penguins were credited with four of those on a five-on-three power play that began in the waning seconds of the opening period and ran 91 seconds into the second.

"That's a big moment in the game," Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "You have over a minute-and-a-half of five-on-three time on fresh ice. You'd like to score there.

"I don't know what the statistics are, but usually when you have that long of a five-on-three time and don't score, it's not looking good for the game, just because of momentum and things like that."

The Penguins' power play figured prominently in their 4-3 overtime victory 24 hours earlier against Tampa Bay, converting three of six chances. Against the Blues, though, it got nothing but frustration to show for five tries.

St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock suggested that the reputation and success of the Penguins' power play contributed to what his penalty-killers were able to accomplish.

"I think almost the fear factor tweaks your interest because if you're scared to death, especially our group, you're going to get the most competitive games," he said. "That's what we got."

What Hitchcock's players gave him was enough to grab two points. If these teams meet again this spring, the stakes will be considerably higher, because it would be in the Stanley Cup final.

"That's an awful good team," Hitchcock said. "They're going to be hard for teams to beat in the playoffs. To beat Pittsburgh in seven games is going to be quite a task if they're healthy. Even close to healthy."

Dave Molinari: and Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published March 23, 2014 3:41 PM

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