By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Playing their fourth game in six nights, the Blues haven't gotten any free passes heading into the All-Star break.
After a playoff-type intensity for 60 minutes in a 3-1 loss at Detroit Monday, the Blues jumped on a plane and headed back home, where they have the red-hot Pittsburgh Penguins awaiting for tonight's matchup at Scottrade Center.
The Penguins (27-17-4) have reeled off six wins in a row after dropping six. In the six games they've won, the Pens have picked it up offensively with 25 goals. They scored only six in the previous six losses in a row.
"Pittsburgh's playing really well," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "They've got the good winning feeling going. We're in the same position when we went into Pittsburgh. We played very well there, so if we can duplicate the game there we played in Pitt, it'll be really good for us. That was a jumping off point for us. We really took the ball from there and played well for about a month. That's what we want to do is keep building on the good things we're doing and address some of the things we need to get better in."
The Blues won 3-2 in overtime on Nov. 23, which was Sidney Crosby's second game back from a concussion, on an overtime goal by Alex Pietrangelo. It started a string of four straight wins for the Blues and the Penguins remember it quite well.
"They're a formidable challenge," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said of the Blues. "They play a physical, aggressive game. They have been tough to score against, they haven't given up a lot of goals, they've gotten good goaltending and they're a team that takes the attack to the other team as well quickly and with aggression. They're playing well on the road and at home."
The Blues (29-13-6) went on a 9-1-2 run starting with the win over the Penguins, a game they used as a building block to what Hitchcock is trying to preach to his squad.
"We want to do the things they do," Hitchcock said of the Penguins. "They're one of the best north-south teams in the league. They have been for four years now. We want to learn to play that way. It's a hard way to play, it's very demanding but very successful.
"We played that way for the most part against Pitt and were very successful. It helps selling it down the line in other games. We were able to use that game for over a month as a reference point that this is how you have to play to win hockey games in the league now."
The Blues will have the challenge of facing the scorching hot Evgeni Malkin, who leads the NHL with 58 points (26 goals, 32 assists) in 41 games.
Malkin has 15 points in nine games coming into tonight, and combined with James Neal's 26 goals and 20 assists, the Penguins will throw a lot at the Blues' top line, led by captain David Backes.
"I think when you play against teams who are good offensively, they challenge you defensively," Hitchcock said. "They're a little different opponent. They play a different way, but it'll be a good challenge for us."
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The Blues' loss at Detroit marks their third and final time playing at Joe Louis Arena this season. They went 0-3 there, and all three losses are the Blues' only regulation losses in their last 15 games (10-3-2).
"They dialed up their ability to play defense and didn't give us much and created a lot on the transition," Backes said of the Western Conference-leading Red Wings. "Rather than having a good response to it and staying with our game, putting pucks in and going on the forecheck, we kind of tried to play a finesse game and tried to play an easier game. You can't respond that way or else they take advantage. They create a lot of penalties and capitalized on a lot of their chances."
"They don't dial up their skill, they dial up their checking," Hitchcock said of the Red Wings. "They dial up the checking and they pushed a few of our guys out. Lessons learned.
"We're a young team trying to learn to win. We're getting closer and closer. There's going to come a time when we're going to beat them, whether it's in a series or whatever, we're going to end up beating them. But we're going to have to learn the lessons. ... All the games were very similar. We had an advantage early, they had the advantage late and they ended up beating us. The same thing happened here, too. They had the advantage early in both games here and then we took it over. They're up 3-2 in the series, but it's their checking that dialed it up yesterday. They pushed us out from that aspect and got some guys discouraged. We dealt with it today and it's going to make us better moving forward."
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The game against Detroit changed for the Blues on Brad Stuart's check late in the first period on Pietrangelo.
The Blues were leading 1-0 at the time and the jolt along the right boards seemed to spark the Wings. They went on to score twice in the second and late in the third.
The Blues' Chris Stewart took exception to Stuart's hit, came off the bench on a line change and challenged Stuart. Stewart went on to drop Stuart in a fight but got 17 minutes in penalties, including an instigator penalty that led to Pavel Datsyuk's game-tying power play goal.
Still, the Blues had no issues with Stewart sticking up for a teammate.
"I loved it. No problem," Hitchcock said. "... What he did was a teammate's response. No issue."
Backes added: "We need to be able to kill off that penalty and pick a guy up. Maybe he took an extra penalty, but he stood up for a teammate. We're going to stick together and go through the battles together. He gets a lot of respect and admiration from our team; we don't think that was a poor play at all."
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Tonight's game for Penguins center Joe Vitale isn't just a run of the mill hockey game. It's a chance to play at home.
Vitale, from nearby Sunset Hills, Mo., will make his forst appearance on Scottrade Center ice since his senior year in high school, when he helped CBC High School knock off De Smet in the Missouri Mid-States State Championship game in 2004.
"I had some good memories here when I was a kid and playing two periods at Blues games," said Vitale, who has two goals and nine points in 41 games this season. "I obviously played in playoff state championships here. To play here and come back and play (against) the Blues, it's pretty crazy, but I'm pretty sure it'll sink in sometime later this week when I'm on break."
Vitale will have a plethora of family and friends in attendance, to which he said: "I lost count. They got about three boxes. I let them have at it with that. People keep asking for tickets, but I finally had to shut my phone off. It's gameday and I'm trying to focus now."
His dad helped him in that aspect, but he's just glad to see a dream come true for a local kid.
"Twenty years ago, this wasn't really a hockey hotbed," said Vitale, who played most of his youth hockey at the local Affton Ice Rink. "So the expectations were pretty low. I was just kind of out there having fun. So it's definitely exciting being out there.
"I glanced at (the schedule), but I was hopeful that I would be here. Around Christmas time, I thought I had a shot to play here. I really started getting excited then."
Vitale's teammates know the feeling.
"It's a great thing to have your family, siblings in the stands and all your friends you grew up with," defenseman Kris Letang said. "To have them get the chance to see you play live, it's pretty amazing that he has a chance to do that.
"I'm from Montreal, so when we play in Montreal, there's always a little something about it because I grew up watching them play. It's always special to play in your hometown."
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The Penguins continue to try to give daily updates on Crosby, but Bylsma said Tuesday that he's in California after visiting with Dr. Robert S. Bray, a neurological spine specialst, to continue to treat the lingering effects of concussion-like symptoms, which has forced Crosby to miss his 21st straight game tonight after playing in eight upon his return.
"Not a timetable because it's possible he could stay there for a little bit of a break as well," Bylsma said of Crosby. "Not a definitive day back in Pittsburgh because he'll be staying on the beach for a little bit."
Crosby first went to Atlanta to pay a visit to Ted Carrick, the chiropractic Neurologist who treated the 2009 NHL MVP for his concussion symptoms last summer.
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The Blues' probable lineup for tonight:
David Perron-David Backes-T.J. Oshie
Vladimir Sobotka-Patrik Berglund-Matt D'Agostini
Jamie Langenbrunner-Jason Arnott-Chris Stewart
B.J. Crombeen-Scott Nichol-Ryan Reaves
Carlo Colaiacovo-Alex Pietrangelo
Barret Jackman-Kevin Shattenkirk
Kris Russell-Roman Polak
Brian Elliott will get his first start since Jan. 12. Jaroslav Halak, who played the previous five games, will back up tonight.
The Blues' inactives include forward Andy McDonald (concussion), winger Alex Steen (concussion symptoms) and defenseman Kent Huskins (ankle). Defenseman Ian Cole was assigned to Peoria Tuesday afternoon. Winger Chris Porter is a healthy scratch.
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The Penguins' probable lineup:
Chris Kunitz-Evgeni Malkin-James Neal
Pascal Dupuis-Dustin Jeffrey-Tyler Kennedy
Matt Cooke-Richard Park-Steve Sullivan
Craig Adams-Joe Vitale-Eric Tangradi
Brooks Orpik-Kris Letang
Paul Martin-Zbynek Michalek
Matt Niskanen-Deryk Engelland
Marc-Andre Fleury will get the start; former Blue Brent Johnson is the backup.
The Penguins' inactives include Crosby (concussion symptoms), winger Arron Asham (concussion), center Jordan Staal (knee) and defenseman Simon Despres (knee). Defenseman Ben Lovejoy and winger Steve MacIntyre are expected to be healthy scratches.