The matchup of the Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues could very well be a sneak peek at the Stanley Cup Finals if a few things go right for each club, and for the most part the game lived up to the billing.
With St. Louis looking to pick up a win on home ice after a hard-fought loss to Detroit the previous evening, the Penguins tried to use fresh legs to their advantage, pushing hard against Ken Hitchcock's defense, but both Brian Elliott and Marc-Andre Fleury were playing like All Stars a few days early, stopping every shot they faced in the opening period.
With Vladimir Sobotka in the penalty box on a high sticking call, the Pittsburgh power play struck when James Neal took a low angle shot that took a bounce and hopped over Elliott's pad to reach the back of the net.
The Penguins extended their lead midway through the period when Steve Sullivan managed a play that looked more like lacrosse than NHL hockey, seeing a shot come in from Derek Engelland at the blue line and getting his stick into the perfect position to tip the puck in midair for the goal.
All was not lost for Ken Hitchock and the Blues, however. Taking advantage of a turnover at center ice, Chris Stewart led a rush back into the Penguins end before setting up Patrik Berglund, who deked in and around Fleury for the goal.
The goal energized the Blues, and the energy paid off when Berglund broke in on another rush short handed, this time being hauled down by Kris Letang. Awarded a penalty shot, Berglund used a similar move to his first goal, shrugging his shoulders a bit and cutting in before beating Fleury through the legs.
Still tied at two late in the third period, the game suddenly took a frightening turn when St. Louis' Barret Jackman went deep into his own zone to retrieve a loose puck and was crushed at the glass by Pittsburgh agitator Matt Cooke. The frequent offender struck Jackman directly to the head and appeared to lead with his elbow, sending the defenseman to the ice in a heap. The referees converged, issuing a boarding call to Cooke and preventing Jackman's teammates from extracting a more physical retaliation.
Given Cooke's history, and the fact that he was suspended four games just under a year ago for a very similar hit on Columbus defenseman Fedor Tyutin, it seems likely that Cooke will receive scrutiny from Brendan Shanahan and the NHL department of player safety. On the flip side, there are some who believe Jackman actually jumped into the boards to dramatize the play, perhaps with help from Cooke's reputation.
In any event, the Cooke penalty carried into overtime, but Blues were unable to convert. That was mostly thanks to the stellar play of Fleury, who moved quickly and aggressively to trap and save the puck as much as possible rather than giving up dangerous rebounds, while Elliot turned aside the few attempts he faced, having ended regulation with 37 saves on 39 shots.
With no resolution in overtime, the game would head to a shootout, and the story was the goaltending once again, with Fleury finally shutting down Patrik Berglund, and Elliot turning away Kris Letang.
T.J. Oshie went five hole on Fleury to respond, while James Neal was stopped on his go-ahead attempt to send the shootout to extra skaters.
Alex Pietrangelo got the puck poke-checked away from him on his first career shootout attempt, but Chris Kunitz was able to lead Elliot wide, out-waited him, and backhanded the puck home when the St. Louis goaltender dropped in anticipation of a stuff attempt.
The game should be remembered for outstanding goaltending, several dynamic goals, and the heroic efforts by Berglund to deliver a win for his team. But an odd, controversial play is the story of this one, and that's a shame.