The Penguins knew they had a tremendous challenge in the St. Louis Blues, one of the top teams in the Western Conference. The clubs don’t meet very often, but when they do, their matchups tend to be intense, quick and physical. And that’s exactly how Saturday’s game played out.
“I think that game was identical to the way you’d expect both those teams to play,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “The tightness of the game and the matchups. There wasn’t a lot out there.”
And while Pittsburgh got wingers James Neal and Beau Bennett back in the lineup to help them out against the Blues, it wasn’t enough as the Penguins lost an absolute battle to St. Louis, 2-1. Jussi Jokinen scored Pittsburgh’s only goal on the power play, with assists from Malkin and Neal.
With the score tied 1-1 going into the second intermission, the winning goal came in the third period on a fluky sequence for goalie Marc-Andre Fleury – who saw 32 shots and had to make a lot of tough saves in the game. Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk’s point shot found its way through traffic and trickled through a screened Fleury. It looked like it got re-directed on the way, but Bylsma said after watching the replay several times postgame “we can’t definitively say it did or not.”
The positive for the Penguins is that they came out with a much better effort than they did in their previous game, a sloppy 5-1 loss to the Rangers in New York City where the Pens started scrambling and trying to do too much after surrendering an early lead. The Pens didn’t do that tonight, and though they didn’t get the end result, they’ll certainly be rewarded if they continue to compete like this.
“(It was) a lot better,” defenseman Deryk Engelland said. “I think we stuck with it. Obviously we turned it over a little bit, but I don't think near as much as in New York. I guess it's a step in the right direction. Obviously not the outcome we wanted, but it's a better game.”
“This was a hard-fought game and a battle out there throughout,” Bylsma said. “It felt like a playoff-type of game in terms of room on the ice. I thought our team played hard and I thought that was a good game.”
MORE ON THE RETURNS OF NEAL, BENNETT
When he returned to team practice on Thursday, Neal originally thought he would need a couple of weeks return to game shape because he was unable to maintain his conditioning during his month-long recovery process due to the nature of his injury.
But he felt a lot better than expected that day and as he continued to practice, and decided he was ready to return to the lineup for the first time since leaving the regular-season opener on Oct. 3.
“Any time you’re coming back, you’re going to say a little longer than it really is,” Neal explained. “For me, I had some good days of practice. I felt a lot better than I thought I would. So I felt I was ready to play tonight and obviously would have liked a different outcome, but I felt pretty good.”
Neal was reunited with his usual linemate Evgeni Malkin, and the two rekindled their chemistry right away. Neal is successful playing with Malkin because of the way he’s able to find space and get open for the center, who finds him so he can release his wicked shot. We saw that a couple of times in the first period, with Blues goalie Jaroslav Halak having to come up with a pair of big saves.
“I think we saw a couple things from James and him being out there tonight,” Bylsma said. “The shot, two times in the first period. And you saw just the line of Malkin and him when he was out there, even on the power play, that dynamic. That one play there at the end of the first period, it’s one where you see from 71 to 18 and we’ve seen that go in before. But we see how dynamic he is immediately with his shot.
They also set up Jokinen’s goal on a gorgeous passing sequence. From behind the net, Neal slid a pass through the blue paint to Malkin on the side of the slot – who found Jokinen at the top of the crease for a tap-in goal.
“Yeah, I felt normal and we had some good looks,” Neal said. “For me, I’ve got to get my legs back again. I was leaving the zone a little early. But maybe that comes with conditioning and maybe you’re cheating a little bit. I think we had a good start and we got some good shots. It was nice to be back with ‘Geno’ and ‘Juicy.”
Bennett, meanwhile, began skating on his own with Kadar on Oct. 20 and returned to team practice on Monday, with hopes that he would be ready for tonight after being on injured reserve since Oct. 12. And he was. He had one shot and two hits in 11:03 minutes of ice time.
OTHER LINEUP NOTES
The Pens made a few other changes to their lineup for Saturday’s game.
After sitting out four straight games as a healthy scratch, former Blue Matt D’Agostini was penciled in on the third line next to Brandon Sutter against his former team. D’Agostini had played parts of four seasons with St. Louis from 2009-13, being traded to New Jersey at last year’s deadline.
Coach Dan Bylsma ruled out Paul Martin after the defenseman did not practice Thursday, Friday or this morning. So Engelland moved back into his spot on the top pairing with Brooks Orpik.
Author: Michelle Crechiolo