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Pens aim for seventh straight against Blues

by Sergei J. Feldman
PENGUINS (27-17-4) at BLUES (29-13-6)


Last 10: Pittsburgh 6-4-0; St. Louis 8-1-1.

Season Series: This is the second of two meetings. In the first on Nov. 23, St. Louis prevailed 3-2 in overtime on a final-minute, backhand flick from Alex Pietrangelo.

Big Story: After suffering their first regulation loss since New Year's Eve on Monday night in Detroit, St. Louis returns to Scottrade Center to defend their League-best home record against the surging Pens. Pittsburgh has won six straight – the latest a 4-3 OT decision against Washington on Monday – and will look for a seventh with the All-Star break right around the corner.

Team Scope:

Penguins: Six straight losses on either side of the Jan. 1 had Pittsburgh tottering on the edge of playoff contention, but a win streak of the same length has the Pens five points clear in fifth in the conference. Buoyed by the outstanding play of current Hart Trophy-favorite Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh has outscored opponents 23-13 over that stretch. On Sunday against the Caps, Malkin was again the difference-maker, scoring on a rebound 1:31 into the extra period to lift the Pens. The top line of Malkin, James Neal and Brooks Orpik again led the way, as Neal scored twice on assists from Malkin.

"They're the big line for us right now and they come up big every night," said defenseman Kris Letang, who scored for the second straight game. "They've been playing really well, and I don't know what to say about Malkin. He's just playing unbelievable right now. He's playing the best hockey I've seen of him."

Blues: So they didn't win in Joe Louis Arena on Monday night, but really, who can? The Blues couldn't hold on to an early one-goal lead, eventually losing 3-1 as Detroit became the first team to win 17 straight at home in 36 years. Two retaliation penalties for hard Detroit hits cost St. Louis in the form of two Wings man-advantage goals, and not even a stellar performance from Jaroslav Halak (25 saves) could save the Blues from themselves.

"We played good in stretches, but we crumbled when things got tight," Blues forward Jamie Langenbrunner said. "We got those retaliatory penalties. That takes away our momentum and gets us out of our comfort zone."

Coach Ken Hitchcock termed the game "a playoff game," and if that was the case, then Tuesday's contest against an Eastern Conference power will be much the same. This time, luckily, St. Louis will skate in the friendly confines of Scottrade, where they are a near perfect 21-3-3 this season.

Who's Hot: No one is hotter than Evgeni Malkin. The Russian has scored in six straight, and has 9 goals and 4 assists over that span. Malkin has 58 points overall, which leads the League, and also had two assists in the previous encounter with St. Louis.

Injury Report: In the midst of its win streak, Pittsburgh owns a surprisingly long and varied list of injured players. Arron Asham (concussion), Simon Despres (lower body), Jordan Staal (sprained left MCL), Robert Bortuzzo (concussion-like symptoms) and Sidney Crosby (concussion-like symptoms) are all on injured reserve. … For St. Louis, only winger Alexander Steen is sidelined with concussion-like symptoms. But it is a big loss: Steen's 13 goals are third-best on the team.

Stat Pack: Like it does against most high-level opponents, St. Louis will likely implement a furious back check to disrupt the offense. The Blues will need to against Pittsburgh, who is second in shots per game (34.4) and sixth goals per game (3.00). In addition to rock-solid goaltending, St. Louis will try to lower its League-low 26 shots-per-game allowance.

Puck Drop: Blues forward Chris Stewart was the guilty party for the first retaliatory penalty. He picked up a minor for instigating, a fighting major and a 10-minute misconduct after challenging Detroit's Brad Stuart, who had leveled Pietrangelo with a big hit late in the first period.

"I have no problem doing that," Stewart said. "That was definitely more playoff hockey. Physical from the start. Trying to set the tone against a rival and somebody who you'll probably face in the playoffs."
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