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Pittsburgh vs. St. Louis Preview

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins (7-1-0-14) vs. St. Louis Blues (3-2-1-7)

Where: Mellon Arena
Tuesday, October 20, 7:00 p.m.
WXDX Radio, FM 105.9
Versus Network

Season Series:
This is the only scheduled game between the Penguins and Blues in 2009-10. Pittsburgh won the only matchup between the two teams last season, 6-3, on Nov. 1 at the Scottrade Center on a game-winning goal by Tyler Kennedy. Pittsburgh is 9-2-1 in the last 12 games against the Blues at Mellon Arena.




PIT 6, STL 3
Game Highlights
AP Recap
Effective Dumps: The Penguins have been dominant early in the season due in large part to the amount of attack time generated in the opposition end. One of the keys to this is an effective dump and chase predicated on retrieving the puck. The Penguins must be smart with their dumps if former teammate Ty Conklin is between the pipes. As many of them know, Conklin is one of the league’s best netminders at getting behind his net and moving pucks up to his defensemen. Allowing Conklin to play the puck could derail the Penguins’ puck-possession game.  

Stay Out of the Box:
Pittsburgh has struggled to stay out of the penalty box in each of their three home games. They were effective on the kill against the Rangers in the opener and during the win over the Lightning on Saturday. St. Louis ranks 10th in the league on the power play through Sunday’s games, scoring on 24 percent of their chances. The Blues can put two lethal power-play combinations on the ice, as evidenced by leading scorer Keith Tkachuk and top-scoring defenseman Erik Johnson both playing on the No. 2 unit.

St. Louis returned to the postseason dance in ’08-09 for the first time in five years as their 92 points were the most accumulated by a Blues team since putting up 99 points in ’02-03. The Blues had made the playoffs 25 consecutive seasons before sitting out the three that preceded last year. A 27-9-7 finish to the season despite missing Paul Kariya and Erik Johnson from their lineup gave St. Louis the push they needed to sneak into the Western Conference playoff field.

Andy Murray was named head coach of the Blues in December, 2006, replacing Mike Kitchen. His arrival sparked a remarkable 24-point turnaround from the Blues, who finished at the bottom of the NHL standings in ’05-06, but went 27-18-9 under Murray. With 480 games coached and 215 wins, Murray is the all-time leader in both categories for the Los Angeles Kings, with whom he coached from 1999 through 2006.
With many of their top players all under the age of 27, the Blues have a chance to watch their core grow and develop together. As a result, they elected for a low-key summer, making only two significant additions to their roster, bringing aboard former Penguins Ty Conklin and Darryl Sydor.

Conklin spent last season with the Detroit Red Wings, where he split time in the regular season with Chris Osgood, posting the better numbers of the two with a 25-11-2 record, 2.51 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage. Conklin was a huge part of the Penguins’ success during his only season in Pittsburgh, holding down the fort during Marc-Andre Fleury’s absence in ’07-08, going 18-8-5 with two shutouts. He was also popular both in the locker room and with the fans.

Sydor spent one-plus seasons with the Penguins, appearing in 82 games with two goals and 13 assists. The Penguins traded Sydor back to the Dallas Stars for Philippe Boucher on Nov. 6 of last season. A two-time Stanley Cup champion, Sydor has appeared in the Stanley Cup Final five times in his 18-year career.  

St. Louis has a perfect combination of youth and experience in their forward ranks. Keith Tkachuk and Paul Kariya are two of the top power forwards and playmakers in league history, respectively, while Patrik Berglund, David Perron and T.J. Oshie make up some of the best collection of young stars fans are not aware of. Tkachuk and Kariya are each off to great starts, with Tkachuk leading the Blues in points with seven (3G-4A), while Kariya is tied with Tkuchuk and another veteran, Andy McDonald, with a team-high three scores. McDonald broke out of a mini-slump with two goals and an assist in Saturday’s 5-0 victory over Anaheim.

While St. Louis’ veteran scorers are off to strong starts, things haven’t been as good for their young talent. Patrik Berglund, who scored 21 times as rookie last year, and David Backes, the Blues’ second-leading scorer last season, were each benched in a 2-1 loss to the Kings on Oct. 10. Both have responded with strong performances since. Perron (15+35=50 in ’08-09) and Oshie (14+25=39) are two more youngsters looking to get on track this season. Perron has been held scoreless through six games while Oshie scored two of his three points in the Anaheim game. Brad Boyes continues to be a scoring star for the Blues. He lit the lamp a team-leading 33 times in ’08-09 and also led St. Louis with 72 points. A former linemate of Sidney Crosby during the 2006 World Championships, Boyes scored a career high 43 times two years ago.

Blessed with a great collection of stay-at-home defensemen, the Blues expect offensive production to pick up from the back end with the return of Erik Johnson and what they hope is a full season from Alex Pietrangelo. Johnson, the No. 1-overall selection in 2006 one spot ahead of Jordan Staal, missed the entire ’08-09 season due to a torn knee ligament. The 6-foot-4, 236-pound Johnson led all Blues defensemen with 33 points (5G-28A) his rookie season of 2007-08. Pietrangelo, 6-foot-3 inches himself, was the No. 4-overall selection in 2008, and cracked the Blues’ lineup as an 18-year-old last season, before being re-assigned to his junior team in Niagara after eight games. In 36 games with the Ice Dogs, who play in the Ontario Hockey League, Pietrangelo recorded eight goals and 21 assists.

Former Calder Trophy winner Barret Jackman tackles the opposition’s top offensive threats. Jackman plays with a rugged edge despite standing only 6-foot-0, averaging 121.4 penalty minutes during his five full seasons. His usual partner, team-captain Eric Brewer, is on injured reserve rehabbing after back and knee surgery. When healthy, they form one of the best shutdown pairs in the league.

Carlo Colaiacovo, who struggled for years to crack the Toronto Maple Leafs lineup, appeared to find a home in St. Louis last season after he and Alexander Steen arrived in a trade for Lee Stempniak. Colaiacovo led all Blues defensemen in scoring, recording 29 points (3G-26A) in 63 games. 23-year-old Roman Polak has seen a career-high 21:33 of ice time in the early going due to the injuries of Jackman and Brewer.    

Chris Mason was a savior of sorts for the Blues last season after Manny Legace, an All-Star as recently as 2008, struggled during the year and was banished to Peoria of the American Hockey League at mid-season. A former starter with the Nashville Predators, Mason finished the season on a 24-8-6 tear to lead the Blues from the bottom of the Western Conference to the No. 6 seed in the postseason. Overall, Mason was 27-21-7 with a 2.41 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage.

The arrival of Conklin should help ease the load on Mason, who performed better in Nashville splitting time than he did as the bona-fide No. 1 man. Conklin gives the Blues a great insurance policy having both split time and played major minutes each of the past two seasons. He will also provide outstanding leadership to a young squad, having experienced runs to the Stanley Cup Final three of the past four seasons (Edmonton, 2006; Pittsburgh ’08; Detroit ’09). Conklin is coming off a 26-save shutout of Anaheim Saturday.

Although off to a slow start in the ’09-10 campaign, young David Backes has taken tremendous strides toward establishing himself as one of the league’s premier pivots by improving his personal statistics each of his previous three seasons. He played in all 82 regular-season games a year ago, finishing second on the Blues in both goals (31) and points (54).

Backes spent three seasons playing collegiately at Minnesota State before joining the Blues’ organization. Blessed with a 6-foot-3, 216-pound frame, Backes packs a rugged game to go along with the natural goal-scoring ability he possesses. He led St. Louis with 165 penalty minutes in ’08-09. Based upon his play the past two seasons, Backes is considered a strong candidate to represent the United States in the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver.

St. Louis will be without their top-two defensive defensemen when they play the Penguins as captain Eric Brewer has yet to play this season following knee and back surgery, and Barret Jackman, whom the Blues hoped would return to the lineup for this game, will again sit out due to a sprained ankle. Forward Alexander Steen is out the next six-to-eight weeks after suffering a broken right wrist.
“If you look at Keith’s history here the last few years, each year he’s gotten off to a good start and been very strong. He’s around the front of the net, he’s screening goaltenders, getting in the way and using that big body. He’s been a good example in terms of work for the rest of our players as well.” 

- Blues head coach Andy Murray speaking to the St. Louis Dispatch about veteran power-forward Keith Tkachuk, leading the Blues through the early portion of the season with seven points (3G-4A).

11: Combined number of games played in ’08-09 between Paul Kariya and Erik Johnson, arguably the Blues’ top offensive threats at forward and defense, respectively. Having these two for a full season should only enhance their offense. 

Author: Jason Seidling

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