Sunday, March 23, 2014

Goaltending, penalty kill key Blues' shutout of Penguins

Backes nets lone goal; Elliott makes 33 saves, PK holds top 
power play unit scoreless in five chances, helps halt two-game slide

By LOU KORAC
PITTSBURGH -- The Blues clinched a playoff berth Saturday night and didn't even have to break a sweat doing it.

Thanks to Boston's 4-2 win at Phoenix, the Blues entered Sunday's matinee against the Penguins with one goal in mind: two points.

Any points the Blues can get will go a long way in determining just who they will face in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Blues were also looking to avoid their first three-game losing streak of the season. 
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Brian Elliott (1) and Alex Pietrangelo (27) held Evgeni Malkin and the
Penguins in check Sunday afternoon.

Mission accomplished.

Led by a penalty killing unit that blanketed some of the stars of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Brian Elliott's last line of defense and David Backes' timely goal in the third period, the Blues were able to hold off the Penguins 1-0 Sunday afternoon at CONSOL Energy Center.

The Blues (48-16-7) picked up a pair of crucial points and caught the Boston Bruins with 103 points in the standings in the race for the Presidents' Trophy while moving three points ahead of San Jose for the top spot in the Western Conference and six points ahead of Chicago for the Central Division lead. The Blackhawks played Nashville later Sunday night.

It was the kind of pick-me-up game the Blues needed after back-to-back losses Wednesday at Chicago (4-0) and Saturday at Philadelphia (4-1). To come back into a tough environment where the Penguins (46-20-5) had only lost five times in regulation all season, it showed true character.

And the Blues can thank a group of penalty killers that thwarted the No. 1 power play unit on all five chances it had, including a stretch at the end of the first and at the start of the second period that lasted 1 minute 38 seconds in length.

"We played really good. We played hard," said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, whose team is 4-0-1 against the Penguins in the past five, surrendering only five goals with a pair of shutouts. "We've had two games where we've really competed at a high level. Both this game and the game at Philadelphia were really good, hard-working games for us. The difference is we made big mistakes in Philadelphia and paid for it and didn't capitalize on our chances. Today, we didn't make the big errors and for all intents and purposes got the big goal at the end."

Elliott, making a spot start in place of Ryan Miller, stopped all 33 shots he faced and earned his fourth shutout of the season and 16th with the Blues, which tied him with Glenn Hall for second on the all-time franchise list.

"I saw a lot," said Elliott, who improved to 17-5-2 on the season with a 1.97 goals-against average and .921 save percentage. "Obviously the ones I didn't, the guys were blocking making big sacrifices in front of me. 

"When you're in a tight game like that against a good team, the guys kind of rose up to the challenge. I tried to make a couple saves and get the rebounds out and they did the rest."

Backes' 24th goal of the season broke a goalie duel between Elliott and the Penguins' Marc-Andre Fleury, who stopped 26 shots but couldn't come up with the one off Backes' knee.

After the Blues' second power play expired, Backes found himself parked in front of Fleury. Alexander Steen's blast from the high slot caromed off Backes' knee and past Fleury with 8:40 remaining in the game. Alex Pietrangelo set a career-high with his 40th assist.

"I've blocked plenty in the recent past where I've almost been mad at myself," Backes said. "I'm trying to take (Fleury's) eyes away, but with that comes standing in front of the net obviously. 

"They're shooting trying to blow it by me and blow one by the goalie. I thought I blocked another one there but turned around and it was in the net. A little bit of elation there."

"Backes had a great screen in front," Hitchcock said. "It was a great shot from the point."

The Penguins, who beat Tampa Bay here Saturday 4-3 in overtime behind three power play goals, had the game in their palms early when T.J. Oshie took a hooking penalty with 29 seconds left in the first and Jaden Schwartz got called for a marginal trip on the Pens' Evgeni Malkin at 19:53.

But the Blues, anchored by Jay Bouwmeester and Pietrangelo along with either Backes or Steen as the defending forward and Elliott all stood firm against the likes of Sidney Crosby, Malkin, James Neal, Chris Kunitz and Jussi Jokinen. The Blues held Pittsburgh to three shots on the 5-on-3 and Elliott made all three stops look easy. The Penguins had lots of zone time but the Blues' coverage wouldn't allow the Penguins with many good looks.

"You're just buying time, really," Bouwmeester said. "You know they have a good power play, they want to move it around. They're a team that will maybe make an extra pass looking for  a guy on the back door. Less is more sometimes. You stay in shooting lanes. You can give them the outside and just try to take away the cross-ice stuff where the goalie really doesn't have a chance.

"That was a focus before the game. We would have liked to take less penalties, but I think we pride ourselves on being able to kill penalties. We have a good group. To think about how bad we were at the start of the year, we'd be right up there. We're confident. This was definitely a good test against those guys."

Backes and Steen managed the time properly by taking draws on their strong side and not staying on the ice too long.

"You don't want to be tired, especially in those situations," Backes said. "If we could keep shifts short and a couple of the blocks went up in the netting, which was fortuitous for us that we could switch out and the faceoffs just happened to work out where it was on his strong side, it was on my strong side."

The rest was up to Elliott, who made stops on Crosby, Malkin and Neal.

"We just cleared lanes and I was able to see the ones they took," Elliott said. "Whenever guys are moving big guys out of the way, it helps." 

To keep the game scoreless at that point was critical.

"It was huge," Hitchcock said. "There's so much firepower there. 

"I thought we did a good job of checking all night and I thought obviously guys blocked shots at the right time. Between the goalie and the PK, I thought we got in lanes and made them play a little bit more static than they probably wanted to today."

The Blues, who improved to 13-4-1 when tied after two periods this season, had one more big kill near the end of the game when Bouwmeester was called for tripping Malkin with 4:44 remaining.

"I think we were well-prepared going into the game," defenseman Barret Jackman said. "... We just went out there, we executed tonight. Guys made big blocks. I thought 5-on-3, between Bouw and Petro, Steener and Backs, they were outstanding not really giving them too much. You can't say enough on how Ells stood on his head."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
David Backes (right) celebrates after scoring the lone goal in a 1-0 victory
against the Penguins Sunday afternoon.

Elliott, who improved to 5-1-1 lifetime against the Penguins, held down the fort at the end of the game when the Penguins lifted Fleury with 1:20 remaining for an extra attacker.

"Ells was fantastic for us," Backes said. "The penalty kill was probably the main reason we won that game. When you give Pittsburgh a 5-on-3 for that amount of time, it's rare that they don't capitalize and he was huge on that kill."

"They have a lot of weapons," Bouwmeester said. "I think it just goes to show the confidence that we have in him. Guys like playing in front of him. He's a likeable guy and everybody's happy for him."

It was only Elliott's second start in the previous 12 games and third action.

"Ells has played good," Hitchcock said. "He's a guy we trust. He's a guy that can come in any time and can kind of turn a game around for us.

"This was one of our most competitive games of the year."

* NOTES -- The Blues made a pair of changes in their lineup. Derek Roy and Dmitrij Jaskin, who both played Saturday, sat out the game Sunday. Roy sat out with a lower-body injury. The defensive pairings remained the same, which meant Ian Cole and Jordan Leopold sat out. However, Hitchcock moved Carlo Colaiacovo with Kevin Shattenkirk and paired Jackman with Roman Polak, a tandem used in the past.

- - The Blues are one of three teams (along with San Jose and Chicago) that Crosby has not scored a goal against. Crosby has four assists in eight career games against the Blues. It was up to Backes, Vladimir Sobotka and company to limit the opportunities of both Crosby and Malkin.

"I don't want to give you all my secrets, but if I was going to have a skills competition with those two guys, I'm going to lose 100 times out of 100," Backes said. "I just can't do that. Physical, hard, make them earn their ice, that's the way I play most nights I'd like to think."

"I think that's the problem that happened in Philadelphia to be honest with you," Hitchcock said. "We chased checks. We got ourselves out of position chasing physicality. We got burnt because of it. Today we stayed really compact, we stayed tight and we created a lot of turnovers because of it."

- - The win was the Blues' 23rd on the road this season, which tied the New York Rangers for most in the league. They've given up two or fewer goals in eight of the past 10 away from Scottrade Center while improving to 20-5-2 in intra-conference games.

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