The St. Louis Blues gave Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins a quick reality check.
Stifling the game's best player at nearly every turn in his second game back from a long concussion recovery, the Blues dominated the Penguins for two periods before escaping with a 3-2 overtime win on Wednesday night.
Alex Pietrangelo took a feed from Vladimir Sobotka and deked past Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury, slipping the puck into a wide-open net to put a sudden halt to the Penguins' six-game home winning streak and put an abrupt end to the giddiness surrounding Crosby's return.
Crosby, who scored twice and added two assists in his season debut against the New York Islanders on Monday, was held scoreless in more than 18 minutes of ice time and took three uncharacteristic penalties.
"The first two periods weren't good, no real explanation or excuses," Crosby said. "I think we were outplayed and the third we were much more desperate and got to our game a little more and got our results, but we didn't deserve that one."
Scott Nichol and Jamie Langenbrunner also scored for the Blues, while Brian Elliott stopped 31 shots, most of them coming in a frenzied third period in which the Penguins awoke from a two-period nap.
"The first two periods were the best periods that we played all year," St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock said. "We did everything we needed to do, except extend the lead and then we're in a track meet in the third period."
One the Blues narrowly survived.
Steve Sullivan kick started the Penguins with a slapshot from the point early in the third period to tie it at one. Langenbrunner stuffed the puck past Fleury to put the Blues back in front. Pittsburgh's James Neal collected his 13th goal to tie the game at two with less than six minutes left in regulation.
Elliott, who entered the night leading the league in goals-against average, kept his head about him even as the Penguins buzzed behind Crosby.
"You have to respect him, but you don't want to just sit there and watch him either," Elliott said. "You just have to play him honestly like everybody else and just be aware when he is on the ice."
Something the Islanders failed to do on Monday, with Crosby playing so brilliantly he spent the next day fielding questions on whether he could catch Toronto's Phil Kessel for the scoring title despite missing the first 20 games of the season.
'Play him tough'
St. Louis put a quick stop to that.
"We tried to play him tough all night," Pietrangelo said. "I thought we did a pretty good job. I mean he's going to get chances, he's a good player, so to keep him off the score sheet, it's a good feeling."
Crosby expressed concerned about his conditioning despite playing nearly 16 mostly flawless minutes in his debut. Maybe he and his teammates should have been more worried about a hangover.
Two days after playing in one of the more memorable regular-season games in the club's 44-year history, the Penguins sleepwalked through the first 40 minutes against the Blues.
"For sure it wasn't the same game that it was Monday," Fleury said. "But at the same time it's a long season and we've got to be ready for every night, and to get some consistency throughout the season and try to get two points every night."
Pittsburgh managed just one as the Blues improved to 5-1-2 since Hitchcock replaced the fired Davis Payne earlier this month.
Clogging up the passing lanes and frustrating Pittsburgh at every turn, the Blues kept the Penguins' high-powered offence in check.
Things eventually got chippy, with Crosby right in the middle of it. He picked up his first penalty of the season on tripping call midway through the second period, then added his second a few minutes later after mixing it up with David Backes.
The two jostled along the boards following a whistle, leading to a logjam behind the St. Louis net, with Crosby extricated from the get-together by referees before things got too serious.
Crosby later earned an elbowing penalty in the third period, a rarity for a player not known to mix things up. He had just 31 penalty minutes in 41 games last season before being injured.
"I'd like to think I'm out there trying to score and not out there trying to take penalties or agitate, so if those are three infractions then there were definitely a handful on their side, too," Crosby said. "I'm fine with calling it tight as long as it's tight both ways, and I don't know if that was the case tonight."