Saturday, December 29, 2018

Penalty kill costs Blues in 6-1 loss to Penguins

Pittsburgh, winners of five straight, scored on all four power plays; St. Louis fails
at fourth attempt this season at three straight wins, have been outscored 21-6

ST. LOUIS -- Before everyone gets all worked up about a 6-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the score wasn't actually as bad as it looked for the Blues even though on paper, it looks like another in a line of dreadful defeats on the season.

But this one had special teams written all over it, as in a woeful penalty kill for the Blues, and Penguins goalie Matt Murray was a difference maker when the game was on the line, especially early.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Penguins goalie Matt Murray makes a save in front of teammate Jack
Johnson and Blues forward Pat Maroon (7) in a 6-1 Pittsburgh win Saturday.

The Penguins (20-12-6), who have won a season-high five in a row, wasted little time scoring 48 seconds into the game when Sidney Crosby, who finished with a four-point night with a goal and three assists, sniped a power-play goal from a sharp angle after Alexander Steen took a high-sticking penalty nine seconds after the opening faceoff.

It was a sign of things to come. It was the start of four, count em ... four power-play goals in as many attempts for Pittsburgh.

It marks the sixth time in seven games the Blues' penalty kill has allowed a man-advantage goal.

In fact, when the Blues entered their game on Dec. 1 against Arizona, they were ninth on the PK, then went on a run of killing off 23 in a row to vault up to fourth in the league.

Since Dec. 14, they are a paltry 12 for 22 on the PK after the dreadful 0 for 4 performance Saturday and sit 18th in the NHL at 79 percent.

And against a team like the Penguins, game, set, match.

"They got one, but what did they score, four power-play goals," said Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who returned to the lineup after missing 11 games with a broken right hand. "Penalty kill wasn't good enough. They don't get those chances, you do the math, it's 2-1, a much closer game. Tough to give those guys that many opportunities. Players like that not only get chances, but they feel better about the game with the puck on their sticks and they get that on the power play."

Steen not only takes the high sticking minor early, then gets hit with an offensive zone interference call in the second that leads to Juuso Riikola's first NHL goal at 5:13 of the period to make it 2-0.

"We gave them opportunities on the power play and they capitalized on all of them," Steen said. "The first two were on me, puts us in a hole from the start of the game.

"... I have to find a way to keep the stick down."

But this has been one of the problems for the Blues when things don't tend to go well: they get caught committing infractions, taxing the penalty kill, and lose the game of special teams.

"It slipped about the last five games I would say," Blues interim coach Craig Berube said. "There are just mistakes that are made that can't happen. We have to do a better job of blocking shots in some scenarios. They're just mistakes we've got to clean up.

"Different mistakes on different goals. It's not just one thing that's happening. It's just mistakes. That was ultimately the cause tonight."

And in another futile attempt to win three games in a row, the Blues (15-17-4) failed yet again. It's the fourth attempt at three wins in a row, and they fell to 0-4-0 and have been outscored 21-6 in the process. 

"It shouldn't be," Pietrangelo said. "Especially now, if we want to make the playoffs, that's what we've got to do. Gotta find a way to string some together here."

The Blues actually weren't bad in the 5-on-5 game. They were able to fire off 74 shot attempts, which is a season-high, but once again, a bugaboo is not being able to hit the net. The Blues did that 20 times tonight and they had a season-tying high 23 shots blocked. But how about the times the Blues passed up shooting the puck? That was an issue in this game as well.

"We had a lot of good quality scoring chances," Berube said. "At times, we were too slow in getting the shot off, maybe looking for another play, who knows? There are 60 attempts that didn't get to the net. That's a lot. So we have to do a better job there. We have to do a better job of getting it through and hitting the net."

David Perron was the only one able to beat Murray, who made 30 saves, and it required a video review too when the Penguins challenged for goalie interference. 

"He made some big saves, especially in that second period," Pietrangelo said. "We had a lot of pressure. When you're down by a couple, you're pushing and we put them back on the power play again to start the third. Good chances, just got to limit theirs."

On the other end, Jake Allen was given the mercy pull after allowing four goals on 17 shots, the fourth time he's been pulled from a game. Jordan Binnington made 11 saves on 13 shots.

Kris Letang, who had a goal and two assists, and Evgeni Malkin also had power-play goals in the game. 

"Sometimes they're not great calls, but sometimes stuff happens, but that's the penalty kill's job," Pietrangelo said. "You're going to have to kill three or four in a game to pick those guys up. Some nights the power play might have to win you a game, some nights a penalty kill will have to, so it's on us killers to limit these guys because they feed off that."

This is the eighth time the Blues have allowed five or more goals in 21 home games (9-10-2) and five of those, they've allowed six or more. But in many of those, there was a lot of doom and gloom with a poor effort, playing emotionless or mistakes galore.

This one, again, didn't have that feel.

"I feel like in other games we were going away easy, and the score looked like that," Perron said. "But 5 on 5, there were some things you build on maybe. It felt a little bit different, for sure."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo returned to the lineup Saturday against
the Pittsburgh Penguins after missing 11 games with a broken right hand.

"We weren't bad 5-on-5," Pietrangelo said. "Penalty kill wasn't good enough tonight. There were some good things 5-on-5, but you still lose the game. We took our penalties 5-on-5. We've got to be a little smarter ... but things happen. Sometimes, you take weird penalties. You flip the puck over the glass. You've got to find a way to pick those guys up and kill those penalties."

But when the specialty teams are that bad, this can be the outcome.

"It's hard to take a positive out of a 6-1 game like that," Berube said. "We have to clean up our penalty kill, we've got to get our special teams going again in the right direction. The power play has to be better too."

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