PITTSBURGH • The Blues didn’t clinch a playoff spot with Sunday’s 1-0 win over Pittsburgh — that happened late Saturday night — but the victory did cure a lot.
Calling the Blues a “desperate team” after dropping the first two games on the road trip, David Backes scored the lone goal of the game in the third period, helping avoid the club’s first three-game losing streak of the season.
Brian Elliott made 33 saves to post his 16th shutout with the Blues, tying Glenn Hall for second on the all-time franchise list.
The Penguins were blanked for only the fifth time this season, as the Blues kept the NHL’s No. 1-ranked power-play off the board on five chances at Consol Energy Center.
“Those are fun to play in,” Elliott said. “Every time they get a shot on net, it’s that much more important. You know that one little bounce here or there can make the difference. You just want to stay in it and know that if you make the saves, those guys will go down and do the rest for you.”
The Blues aren’t scoring much either these days, but they only needed one. Backes tallied his 24th goal of the season on a deflection with 8 minutes, 40 seconds remaining in regulation, and the team’s only even-strength goal in its last nine periods stood as the difference.
“We were a little desperate losing two in a row against two tough tests in Chicago and Philly,” Backes said. “Coming into a building with another great team, if we don’t assert ourselves on the penalty kill, do all the little things, it could get pretty ugly and I think that kind of scares you into playing the right way. And when we didn’t do the job, Brian Elliott was Johnny on the spot.”
The Blues had already qualified for a spot in the Western Conference playoffs when they took the ice in Pittsburgh — that happened when Phoenix fell 4-2 to Boston on Saturday night.
So they settled in for their second straight matinee, realizing they were perhaps in for a close game against the Penguins. The Blues were 3-0-1 in their previous four matchups with the Pens, and each had been decided by one goal.
Sunday’s game was scoreless through two periods, but not because there weren’t chances for both sides. There were a combined 41 shots and five power plays. Four of those power plays belonged to Pittsburgh, which went three for six on the man-advantage in a 4-3 overtime win over Tampa Bay on Saturday.
Against the Blues, the Penguins had a 5-on-3 power that lasted 1:38, including 1:32 on fresh ice as the second period got under way.
The Blues sent out defensemen Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo, and they didn’t leave the ice until the power play was over.
“They’re a team that maybe will make an extra pass, looking for a guy at the back door, that sort of thing,” Bouwmeester said. “Less is more sometimes. Just try to take away the cross-ice stuff where the goalie doesn’t really have a chance.”
The Blues, who also received help from Backes and Alexander Steen on the kill, allowed only three shots on goal.
“We just kind of cleared lanes and I was able to see the ones they took,” Elliott said. “You saw guys front shots, block them and clear them down. When you’re clearing them 200 feet, it takes a lot of time to get back in our zone.”
Elliott was electric in the third period, making a glove save on Pittsburgh’s Olli Maatta with 13:45 left in regulation. Then with under 11 minutes to play, Evgeni Malkin made a strong play to the net and unleashed a wrist shot, which Elliott brushed off. Following the sequence, Malkin took a high-sticking penalty, putting the Blues on the power play.
The Blues have been struggling on the man-advantage, to say the least — four for 55 since Feb. 4. They were zero for six in Saturday’s 4-1 loss to Philadelphia.
One minute had elapsed on the Malkin penalty when Blues coach Ken Hitchcock called a timeout with 9:44 remaining in regulation to rest his top power-play unit.
“I felt like that group had really worked hard in the first 50 seconds,” Hitchcock said. “I really thought they were going to get another good whack at it, so I bought time for them, and they got it done.”
The goal didn’t officially come on the power play, but as Malkin was exiting the box, Steen was teeing up from just inside the point. Standing in front, Backes deflected the puck past Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
“I’ve blocked plenty in the recent past,” Backes said. “I thought I blocked another one there, but I turned around and it was in the net. A little bit of elation there.”
The Pens pulled Fleury with 1:25 remaining for a sixth attacker, but even after a timeout to regroup with 16 seconds left, they couldn’t get the equalizer.
“We played really good ... we played hard,” Hitchcock said. “We’ve had two games where we really competed at a high level, both this game and the game in Philadelphia. The difference is that we made big mistakes in Philadelphia and paid for it. Today we didn’t make the big errors and then got the (big) goal at the end.”