When Leon Clarke went close only seconds into this fixture, Sheffield United appeared destined to enjoy a profitable afternoon.
Instead, it proved to be another frustrating fixture for manager Chris Wilder and his players who, following Jordan Hugill's strike, have now lost their last three outings and are without a win in five.
Hugill, the former Port Vale centre-forward, scored the only goal of the contest after meeting Callum Robinson's cross just before the hour. It was enough to seal Preston North End's third straight win in Championship competition and cut the visitors' lead over seventh-placed Leeds to a single point.
The way this contest unfolded could reopen the debate about whether, given the options at their disposal, United should temporarily change shape. When Clayton Donaldson and Steelphalt Academy graduate Regan Slater were introduced, Wilder's team regained their foothold in a match which had been slipping away from them after the break. It is a measure of the coaching staff's confidence in Slater that, aged just 18, he was summoned from the bench at such a critical moment. John Lundstram also acquitted himself well but, despite enjoying some decent spells of possession, Wilder's men were unable to carve enough clear cut openings to test Preston goalkeeper Chris Maxwell.
They remain sixth but now 14 points behind leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers ahead of next weekend's trip to Aston Villa.
If United were feeling anxious following their recent results, it certainly did not show during the opening exchanges of this game. Clarke, who travelled to Lancashire having scored 10 goals in his last six outings, was responsible for carving the first chance of note by peeling away from Ben Davies only to see his low shot smothered by Darnell Fisher. Jack O'Connell also went close when he deposited a header on the roof of Maxwell's net. Chris Basham and John Lundstram also saw attempts smothered midway through the half.
However, although United were in the asendancy, their did not enjoy total control of the game as Robinson reminded with two excellent passages of play. Paul Gallagher rattled a free-kick against the woodwork just before half-time and it laid the platform for a strong start to the second-half by Preston. So it was no surprise when Hugill broke the deadlock in the 59th minute with an excellent finish.
With John Fleck suspended and Paul Coutts ruled-out for the rest of the season with a broken leg, Wilder will have been distraught to see two more key players - Mark Duffy and David Brooks - ruled-out due to illness. Although Basham's move alongside Lundstram in midfield was anticipated, the appearance of Samir Carruthers in the starting eleven was not. Nevertheless, the 24-year-old, who impressed at the beginning of the campaign before losing his place, remains capable of unlocking even the tightest defences in the division and, after Clarke's early sight of goal, released Billy Sharp with a perfectly weighted pass which curled around his marker before the assistant referee raised his flag.
Preston entered the fixture having won both of their previous two outings and served notice of the threat they still posed when Robinson twice caused United's rearguard problems. On the first occasion, he looked set to wriggle his way through on goal before a combination of George Baldock, Cameron Carter-Vickers and Richard Stearman eventually blocked his path. Then, in the 18th minute, he forced Simon Moore to make an excellent reaction save.
After Gallagher had struck the woodwork, Tom Barkhuizen went close for Preston at the beginning of the second-period but Moore, alert to the danger, dashed off his line to claw the ball away. Moments later, Robinson should have broken the deadlock when an incisive counter-attack left Stearman and Carter-Vickers exposed but was left holding his head in his hands after dragging wide of the far post. Hugill, however, made no mistake when he beat Moore to edge Preston in front.
Donaldson's entrance coincided with United's best spell of the second-half, with Sharp going close and Clarke inches away from connecting with a header. But Preston held on for the win.
Preston North End: Maxwell, Pearson, T Clarke, Hugill, Johnson, Gallagher (Browne 71), Fisher (O'Connor 28), Davies, Huntington, Barkhuizen, Robinson (Harrop 71). Not used: Rudd, Boyle, Horgan, Mavididi.
Sheffield United: Moore, Baldock, Stevens, O'Connell, Stearman, Carter-Vickers (Donaldson 66), Basham, Lundstram, Carruthers (Slater 70), Sharp, Clarke. Not used: Blackman, Wright, Lavery, Heneghan, Lafferty.
Referee: Tim Robinson (West Sussex).
Star Man: John Lundstram