Ron Cook: Frustrating but encouraging loss for Penguins



The frustration was evident, especially from Penguins star Evgeni Malkin. At the end of a long, unsuccessful afternoon, after nearly three hours of trying and failing to get through what must have seemed like wave after wave of St. Louis Blues, after having six of his shots blocked by a Blues team that finished with a staggering 25 blocks, he lost it at the final horn and tried to pummel defenseman Alex Pietrangelo with a series of right hands. It happens when you lose, 1-0, in your building. It happens when you can't score 5-on-5 or 5-on-4 or, in the Penguins' case in this game, 5-on-3 for 1:32 on fresh ice at the start of the second period.

Losing always stinks.

But the good news for Malkin and his teammates is the frustration will pass quickly if it hasn't already. The Penguins must know they played a strong, if not scintillating game, against the best team in the Western Conference. They matched the Blues' physicality, toughness and defensive structure, which is saying something because the Blues just might be the NHL's best at playing that sort of close, take-away-space, tight-checking game. The two teams easily could have played all night without scoring a goal. The Blues were fortunate to get theirs when a slap shot by Alexander Steen deflected off teammate David Backes' leg and snuck past Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury midway through the third period. It wasn't officially a power-play goal, but, in actuality, it was because Malkin had just come out of the penalty box after a serving a two-minute minor for putting his stick in Backes' face after being stoned on a shot by Blues goaltender Brian Elliott.

"It was a good game for us to play," Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "That's how it's going to be in the playoffs. This was good for our team."

Not the loss, of course.

There is no excuse for a power play of Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz, James Neal and Jussi Jokinen not to score when it has a two-man advantage for that long. That's where the game was lost.

The power-play failure seemed to deflate the Penguins. Either that or it energized the Blues. It probably was a combination of both. The Penguins had four shots on goal on the 5-on-3, another in the remaining few seconds of a 5-on-4 power play that followed and then didn't get their next shot for more than 12 minutes.

"That's the big story here," Crosby said. "We have to realize how important a power play like that is. We battled, but we didn't find a way to score."

Lack of effort wasn't the problem. The Penguins' effort was good all game. So were their approach and commitment to a tight-checking, defensive-oriented game. "We had the right mentality," Niskanen said. The Blues also had little room to work. Just about all of their shots were contested. "We expected it to be a playoff-type game -- and it was," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.

The Penguins' response was encouraging because they haven't always matched up physically with the bigger, tougher teams in the league. Think Boston in the Eastern Conference final a year ago when they were swept. Think San Jose earlier this season when they were pushed around and beaten, 5-3.

"We were hard to play against today," Bylsma said. "We didn't give them a lot of opportunities around the net."

It wasn't an exciting game to watch. Malkin had seven shots on goal and Crosby five, but they didn't have great scoring chances. "They have big guys who lean on you and grind you down," Niskanen said of the Blues. "There's not going to be free-wheeling out there for our forwards."

There wasn't any of that. But, in a lot of ways, the Penguins played better against the Blues than they did Saturday in their 4-3 overtime win against Tampa Bay. It's how they are going to have to play in the playoffs when everything tightens and the scoring chances are few and far between.

The Blues and Penguins won't play again this season unless it's in the Stanley Cup final.

Don't laugh.

It's not an unrealistic possibility.

Certainly, the Blues will be a confident team if that happens. They beat the Penguins, 2-1, in a similar game in early November in St. Louis. You should have seen coach Ken Hitchcock and his players on the bench smirking as the officials pulled Malkin off Pietrangelo. The winner always gets the last laugh.

Crosby said he didn't want to look that far down the road but sounded as if the Penguins wouldn't mind seeing the Blues again.

"Both teams, for not playing each other [much], don't seem to like each other too much. Yeah, it would be pretty intense."

Pretty interesting, too.

If not artistically, at least competitively.

The Blues wouldn't be the only team to go into that series with confidence.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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