Key Observations Heading Into Game 73 Between the Penguins and Blues

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By: Andy Hughes (@PensNation_Andy)

The Pittsburgh Penguins (40-22-10) return to CONSOL Energy Center tonight against the St. Louis Blues (45-21-7) after a tough three-game road trip. The Penguins went 1-2, but more was expected from them since each of the three teams they played were out of the playoffs. Pittsburgh first got shutout by the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday night and then lost a 2-1 game to the Dallas Stars two nights later. They bounced back with a 3-1 victory over the Coyotes in Arizona on Saturday night, but it wasn’t pretty at first. The Penguins were only credited with 3 shots on goal in the first period against the Coyotes, who are one of the league’s worst reams this season. Luckily, Brandon Sutter was able to get a lucky goal without even using his stick to put Pittsburgh on the scoreboard. Sutter deflected an attempt to clear the puck by Arizona goaltender Mike Smith into the net using his body. It wasn’t the prettiest goal, but the Penguins will take any goal they can get at this point. Daniel Winnik scored his first goal in a Penguins uniform a few minutes later to give the Penguins a 2-1 lead. Sidney Crosby added an empty net goal to seal the deal for Pittsburgh, giving them a much-need 3-1 win to snap a four-game losing streak.

Again, it wasn’t the sexiest win of the season, but Pittsburgh just needs points and health. Pittsburgh played the entire game without defenseman Christian Ehrhoff as a result of an undisclosed injury. No other players were available to replace Ehrhoff so the Penguins had to play with five defensemen. In addition to Ehrhoff’s absence in the final game of the road trip, the Penguins also did not have two of their top forwards in Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist during the entire trip. Both players skated at the team’s practice Sunday night and are progressing, per Mike Johnston. Fortunately, these injuries don’t look to be long-term, so Pittsburgh really dodged a bullet. I would not expect Malkin or Hornqvist to play tonight against St. Louis, but Ehrhoff could return in addition to the recent recalled Derrick Pouliot. Pittsburgh sent Andrew Ebbett back to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to make room for Pouliot. If both of them play tonight, there is a good chance the team will dress seven defensemen and eleven forwards. Johnston has been forced to make a lot of adjustments with his lines as a result of these injuries, which has been tough given the team’s lack of depth in the top-six. Many different role players have been forced to play in the top-six this season, but Crosby has still been able to produce, no matter what people say. Many fans have asked “What’s wrong with Crosby?” Sure, there have been games where he’s struggled, but no one is perfect every game. With the two points against Arizona on Saturday night, Crosby took the NHL lead in scoring with 74 points. Don’t question what’s wrong with Crosby. The league is responsible for the fact that offense continues to decline each year and they need to act on this quickly. There is no good reason for not having a single player reach the 100 point mark this season with so many talented players in the league like Crosby, Malkin, Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos.

Getting away from that topic, for everything that has happened to the Penguins recently, they are still in pretty good shape in the standings. Some people have overblown the recent performances by Pittsburgh and it has caused some panic. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the Penguins will likely struggle without Malkin and Hornqvist. They are two of their top goal scorers and Pittsburgh has been forced to plug in bottom-six players into the top-six. That’s not exactly a winning recipe no matter what team you play in the NHL. While the New York Rangers are making in tough for the Penguins to win the Metropolitan Division this year, Pittsburgh is only two points behind the New York Islanders. If the Rangers continue to win, we could see another first round series between the Penguins and Islanders. The goal is always to win the division, but the East is wide open the year and it will come down to which team gets hot at the right time.

No matter who is or isn’t in the lineup tonight, the Blues will be another good test before the postseason begins. St. Louis has one of the best records in the NHL and will look to split the season series with Pittsburgh with a win tonight. Backed behind Blake Comeau‘s three points, the Penguins won the first meeting in St. Louis by a 4-2 score. Tonight’s game will also reunite several players with their former teammates from recent trades between the Blues and Penguins. Pittsburgh first traded Marcel Goc to St. Louis for Maxim Lapierre and then sent Robert Bortuzzo to the Blues in exchange for Ian Cole right before the NHL trade deadline. With over 20 games with their new teams under their belt, both Goc and Lapierre have recorded 2 points since joining their new squads. Both players play in the bottom-six, so not a ton of offense is expected from them. However, Lapierre was acquired by Pittsburgh for his toughness and grit, which is something the Penguins did not see in Goc. It’s way too early to see what kind of impact these trades will make, but it will be interesting to see all of these players sharing the same ice again.

St. Louis is typically identified as a defensive team, but their offense has been pretty impressive this year. Vladimir Tarasenko is quietly only four points behind Crosby in the scoring race with 70 points (35 goals and 35 assists). The 23-year-old winger has been tremendous this season and has six game-winning goals. In addition to Tarasenko, the Blues also have three other players with at least 23 goals (Alexander Steen, Jaden Schwartz and David Backes). T.J. Oshie and Paul Stastny have been pretty productive up front as well for the Blues. St. Louis also has two young talented defensemen in Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo. Shattenkirk, however, is currently listed on injured-reserve. As you can see, this Blues team is loaded with young talent and are really fun to watch. In addition to Bortuzzo and Goc, the Blues also brought in former Penguins defenseman Zbynek Michalek and veteran forward Olli Jokinen. They aren’t huge additions by any means, but it really improves their depth in both areas, which will be extremely important for the Stanley Cup playoffs. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that St. Louis is one of the most balanced teams in the league. They are currently ranked fifth in goals for per game (2.93) and seventh in goals against per game (2,41). The Blues’ starting goaltender Brian Elliot has played extremely well this season and deserves more credit than he is is getting. I know it’s probably easier to play in front of the Blues’ players than most NHL teams, but that shouldn’t take away from Elliot’s performance this season. In 42 games this season, Elliot has notched a 24-12 record with a 2.16 goals-against average and .921 save-percentage. In addition, with his 21st shutout as a Blue on Tuesday night, Elliot broke the franchise record for shutouts, previously held by Jaroslav Halak. Elliot faced the Penguins in the first meeting this season, stopping 25 of 29 shots. The Blues have one of the best goaltending tandems in the league with Elliot and Jake Allen. Allen, the owner of an 18-6-4 record will start against the Penguins tonight. The 24-year-old has recorded a .906 save-percentage and a 2.46 goals-against average in 32 games this season. It will be Allen’s first appearance against Pittsburgh in his career.

This game will not be as fun without Hornqvist and Malkin, but it still should be a playoff-type hockey game. The Crosby vs. Backes match up is always a fun one to watch too. Backes makes live much tougher on some of the game’s most skilled players and it would be great to see the Penguins captain continue to rack up points. A win tonight would be a nice confidence boost for a team who is looking to prepare for a big run in the postseason.