Steen, McClement, D'Agostini locking
down defensively, producing offensively for Blues
By LOUIE KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Jay McClement, Alex Steen and Matt D'Agostini will likely spend time this morning studying tape on the challenges of containing San Jose's potent top line of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley. That's what shutdown lines are supposed to do.
McClement and Steen have been a fixture on the Blues' top defensive line. B.J. Crombeen played a major role on it last season and has spent time there this season as well.
But Blues coach Davis Payne needed to move Matt D'Agostini up the charts. D'Agostini was producing offensively and needed to move up from the fourth line. Payne saw a nice fit with Steen and McClement. The possibility of creating diversity there was intriguing.
Not only does the trio respond by smothering the opponent's skill lines, the threesome is also causing havoc in the offensive zone in the early part of the season.
The Blues' third line has produced a combined eight goals and 16 points through nine games along with a combined plus-12.
It's been a line that has found instant chemistry and a big reason the Blues are off to a 6-1-2 start, the third-best in franchise history.
"We've clicked early, and I think it's just hard work," said D'Agostini, who has four goals and six points. "We've been playing pretty solid in their end making sure we're there for each other, supporting each other down low, we have quick little plays, just get pucks to the net. That's what we've been doing lately and it's been successful."
That line accounted for all the Blues' regulation goals (McClement had all three, his first NHL hat trick) in a 4-3 shootout win over Atlanta Saturday when the others were struggling to produce.
"Steener and D'Ags obviously both have great shots," said McClement, who has three goals and four points in nine games. "Steener sees the ice really well. Two of the goals (Saturday) night, he found (D'Agostini) in the slot to get that shot away quick and it creates opportunities for us. Our best shutdown capability is the fact that hopefully we can play in the offensive zone more often than not."
McClement and Steen found good chemistry playing with Crombeen, who is currently playing wing on the Blues' fourth line, a season ago. Their ability to challenge the opposition's top lines made them a tough trio to face. But something didn't click in the early going this season. Payne decided to tweak some things for the better of everyone involved.
"Last year, we had good chemistry as a line. I thought we played very well," said Steen, who has a goal and six points in his nine games. "This year, we just couldn't find the same balance right off the bat, but it doesn't mean we weren't going to find it. I wasn't worried. I thought it was going to come.
"The big part of the start was that I was shooting a lot of the pucks and they weren't going in for me. I was hitting posts and things like that. D'Ags has come in and done a great job. He's really patient, he's got a great shot, a quick release. The last couple games, we've just kind of been looking for him in that soft pocket."
Added McClement, "With Beener, it changes the makeup of the line obviously. We've seen that before where Davis has changed it up late or whatever because Beener is good on those situations along the walls. Not that D'Ags isn't, but that's more Beener's role. D'Ags has obviously taken advantage of an opportunity this year and played really well. He's getting the chance to show off his skills and obviously he's skating real well and he's got that shot."
Considering this line has accounted for 31 percent of the 26 goals that has seen the Blues take 14 of a possible 18 points, it's tremendous support for the top two lines.
"That's what depth does," Payne said. "If an opponent takes the checking line off to play against the McClement group, now all of the sudden we get to play skill against skill, which we like. Also, when you're talking about Alex Steen and Matt D'Agostini with the reliability of Jay McClement, you talk about where that ends up playing on the other team's d-men, it's second pair, third pair ... we like that matchup."
Don't mistake this line as one that can produce like some of the 100-point players do around the league. Their role is to think defensive responsibilities first and then if attacking in the offensive zone presents itself, go for it.
"When we play against (the top lines), we realize that they're going to give us chances, they're going to take some risks and if we just stay patient, we're going to get our chances," Steen said. "Once we did, we took advantage of them. We went on offense and pushed them back. We're pretty good at maintaining puck control in their end and grinding them down. That's frustrating for the opposition."
D'Agostini said, "That's the thing about Jay and Steener, they're offensive guys. They can put the puck in the net, but at the same time, they're great defensively. If you take care of things in your defensive end and you do things right, you get to play in the offensive zone more. With great defensive players, it just leads to more offensive time. They've been doing that pretty well."
The Blues, who are second in the league in goals allowed with 17, are getting major contributions in the defensive zone. From Jaroslav Halak's goaltending to an aggressive defensive corps to forwards that are back-checking, this unit is the leading force behind those forwards and the job they're doing.
Playing fast and playing furious is the way to go.
"He wants every line to play the same way. He wants us to play aggressive," McClement said of Payne. "If we do that, then hopefully it will enable our D to stand up. The goal is to move the puck quick and not spend a lot of time in our zone and transition quick. The biggest thing for us is our forwards coming back, and if the D see that, it makes them be able to step up a little bit more."
It's been a fun learning curve thus far, but if things continue to go in this manner, the Blues' third line will be a cemented in place and one that will be relied heavily on at both ends of the ice.
They wouldn't want it any other way.
"I'm learning more and more how to play with them and where they're going to be," D'Agostini said of his linemates. "Hopefully, we just keep getting better and better and growing as a line."
Added Steen, "Some nights is not going to be your night and you have to try and take care of the defense. Some nights when you feel good, yeah, why not go on the offense?"
Yeah, why not?