PITTSBURGH -- The Stanley Cup playoffs don't start for another 3 1/2 weeks but that was hard to tell Sunday when the two of the NHL's best teams met in an intense game.
Center David Backes scored the game's lone goal in the third period and backup goaltender Brian Elliott stopped 33 shots for the shutout as the St. Louis Blues avoided their first slump of the season with a 1-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"It's a 1-0 game, but from our side, we thought it was pretty entertaining," Blues left winger Brenden Morrow said. "You're on the edge of your seat. We needed a good effort and had one. It was like a playoff game."
The Blues (48-16-7) were able to stay away from their first three-game losing streak of the season and increased their point total to a Western Conference-leading 103 in beating the Metropolitan Division-leading Penguins (46-20-5) for the second time in as many meetings this season. St. Louis is 4-0-1 against Pittsburgh in the teams' last five games.
Backes' goal, his 24th of the season, came with 8:40 remaining when he tipped in a shot by left winger Alexander Steen, who sent a blast toward Penguins goaltender Marc-Andrew Fleury from just beyond the right circle. Backes' tip bounced off Fleury's glove and into the net.
The Penguins, who scored 13 goals in their previous three games, had a late power play when defenseman Jay Bouwmeester was called from tripping with 4:44 left, but the Blues and Elliott killed the penalty. The Blues killed five penalties in the game.
Elliott, who was relegated to a backup role after the acquisition of goaltender Ryan Miller from the Buffalo Sabres in a trade last month, was outstanding in posting his third shutout of the season and 24th of his seven-year career.
Starting for just the third time in 12 games this month, Elliott improved his season record to 17-5-2. He is 3-0-1 in his last four starts against the Penguins.
The Blues blocked 25 shots, defenseman Barrett Jackman leading the way with four.
"I saw a lot of shots," Elliott said. "Obviously, the ones I didn't, the guys were blocking and made big sacrifices in front of me. When you're in a tight game like that against a good team, it's tough. The guys kind of rose up to the challenge and I tried to make a couple saves and get the rebounds out of the zone and they did the rest."
Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen had words of praise for the Blues, particularly their defense.
"They play a similar structure to (Los Angeles) and San Jose, Anaheim's that way a little bit," Niskanen said "They're just tight checking. They've got some big guys that will lean on you, they'll grind you down. They got really good defensemen that are pretty physical but mobile. There's just not a lot of space out there. They play in your face and it's not going to be freewheeling out there for our forwards."
Fleury played well in defeat, making 26 saves, but lost his fourth straight game.
"We were good enough to win the game. Just one goal away from tying it up," Fleury said. "We played a good team and battled hard with them, so that's a good thing. We just didn't get the two points."
NOTES: The Blues clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the third straight season late Saturday night when the Phoenix Coyotes lost to the Boston Bruins at home. ... Blues C Maxim Lapierre was active after being a healthy scratch for the first time this season on Saturday in a loss at Philadelphia. ... Blues backup G Brian Elliott started primarily because St. Louis was playing on back-to-back days, but G Ryan Miller has allowed Penguins C Sidney Crosby, the NHL's leading scorer, to score 29 points -- including 10 goals -- in 17 career games. ... Penguins C Joe Vitale was scratched for a second straight game with an undisclosed injury. ... The Blues made their first appearance in Pittsburgh since Nov. 23, 2011. ... The Blues finish their four-game road trip Wednesday night at Toronto against the Maple Leafs. ... The Penguins host the Coyotes on Tuesday night.