Hutton to start, Copley to back up as Blues try to stop the bleeding
PITTSBURGH -- Games between the Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues have often been low-scoring in recent seasons. In 39 games over the past six seasons, the clubs averaged a combined 4.3 goals a game, and there were two 1-0 finishes in that span.
That's not the way the statistical arrow is pointing heading into their first meeting of 2016-17 on Tuesday night at PPG Paints Arena -- and it doesn't favor St. Louis.
Pittsburgh almost seems to be scoring at will. Same with the Blues' opponents.
The Penguins (30-11-5) lead the NHL with an average of 3.63 goals a game, and lately that has been boosted to a scorching stretch with an average of six goals in the last four contests
During the current four-game winning streak, Pittsburgh outscored its opponents 24-10. During the current and season-best seven-game home winning streak, the Penguins own a 37-18 scoring edge.
Individually, centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who is enjoying a seven-game point streak, are tied for second in the NHL with 54 points apiece, and Crosby leads the league with 28 goals.
In the 15 games since Crosby has been playing with wingers Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust, that top line combined for 48 points. Sheary on Monday was named the NHL's top star of the week after collecting six goals and nine points during the four-game winning streak.
"We're just working well together," Rust said. "We're playing really close in the offensive zone. We've been able to read each other's body language well."
Goaltender Matt Murray, who has been in net for all four games in the streak, appreciates the goal support as well as, in general, solid defensive and overall play from his teammates.
"The team has done quite the job of making my job fairly easy," Murray said.
Goaltending and giving up goals has, conversely, been the bane of the Blues lately.
St. Louis (23-19-5) ranks in the bottom five in goals against per game at 3.11. The team has lost three games in a row -- the first time that has happened in regulation this season -- by a combined 18-11 and is 4-6 this month.
That slump dropped the Blues into a wildcard spot in the West.
Coach Ken Hitchcock isn't piling all of the blame at the feet of his goaltenders, but he is concerned.
"Quite frankly we're allowing too many goals against, too many easy scoring chances," he said. "We're getting scored on killing penalties now. I think if we clean up our own end, both five on five and five on four, it will help us a lot. We are getting a lot of scoring chances, we are creating a lot, but we're giving up just as much now."
Still, the Blues have taken some steps to try to get better play in net, particularly from No. 1 goalie Jake Allen, who has been pulled three times in his past five starts and is 3-7-0 in his past 11 starts.
Allen was left home for a road game Saturday at Winnipeg, one in which rookie Phoenix Copley made his NHL debut in a 5-3 loss. The idea, explained by St. Louis management, was for Allen to take a breather physically and mentally.
Allen was back at practice Monday and said afterward that he had a good, relaxing weekend.
Allen, who spoke with reporters for the first time since he was benched, accepted responsibility for the Blues' recent struggles.
"I take a lot of blame. I deserve it. No excuses," he said. "I have no problem with taking the heat."
Still, Allen won't get the chance for what could be a fresh start Monday. Hitchcock announced that backup Carter Hutton (6-6-2) will start against Pittsburgh. Allen won't even dress, with Copley backing up. Allen instead is scheduled to start Thursday at Minnesota.