Tuesday, January 4, 2011

D'Agostini offers unique elements to top line

Blues are 5-1 since matching winger with Backes, Sobotka

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- It's always interesting to know what goes into a coach's decision when assembling line combinations. Davis Payne has used an assortment of them for the Blues this season.

"You're always looking for your three forwards to always compliment each other," Payne said. "I've always found it difficult to have three 'like' players on the same line. It tends to be not enough pucks, not enough space, not enough net-front. So you have to kind of have a good balance going on there."

When Payne tossed David Backes, Vladimir Sobotka and Matt D'Agostini together to make up the Blues' top line, there's a multitude of combinations there that each player brings. There's nothing 'like' about any of them. Each brings his own distinction.

Backes and Sobotka were thrown together before, playing the wings with Patrik Berglund and the trio had quite the success together.

But injuries, along with inconsistency, have most definitely altered the Blues and Payne's course of action. So when Payne deciphers what 12 forwards will play in a game, there needs to be a match.

Keeping Backes and Sobotka together and moving Backes back down the middle, Payne saw something in Matt D'Agostini that he wanted to give a shot. D'Agostini, given a pivotal role with the Blues this season after seeing minimal action when acquired from Montreal last season, offers the complimentary elements that blends with what the Blues need from that unit.

"When he's on his game, there's a speed element, there's a possession element there that he can handle and maintain that possession, that speed, sliding off of people, driving by people," Payne said of D'Agostini. "He can absorb some contact. You have to be able to do that in today's game. And then obviously his shot and his ability to finish.

"Sobe and his ability to handle things in tight quarters, I think David's power game and Dags has that really good wide speed, it brings another element that those other two guys feel that any time we can get the puck pushed up the right wall with some space with it, Dags is going to make something happen."

According to Backes, who's been putting up points with regularity since signing a five-year extension on Nov. 12 (25 points in 25 games since Nov. 11), all he wants D'Agostini to do is fire away. It's no coincidence that the Blues are 5-1 since aligning the three together Nov. 21 at Atlanta.

"Let him shoot the puck as much as he can," Backes said. "He's got an awesome shot and he's got the wheels to get some space to let that go."

"Backs is always telling me to just shoot," D'Agostini said. "He's pretty unselfish that way. He wants me shooting the puck as much as possible. He's going to be going there just like his goal (Sunday) night. That kind of exemplifies the way we want to play. Get pucks there, go and bang them in."

A perfect example was the first goal Sunday that gave the Blues a 1-0 lead -- a game they eventually lost 4-2 at home to Dallas. Sobotka forces a turnover along the boards, D'Agostini scoops in and streaks down the side and unleashes a hard shot from the outside with Backes crashing the net.

The result? Backes poking home a rebound.

"That first shot doesn't go in, I'm a little surprised," Backes said. "He's got an awesome shot. The way he was flying (Sunday) night going down the wall, it was tough to keep up with him, no question about that."

When all three are clicking, the sky's the limit.

"I think we can be a pretty explosive line," said D'Agostini, who picked up his first two-point game Sunday since Dec. 5 and fifth of the season. "You've got Backs, who's working hard every shift. He's a smart player, so he's going to be in the right spots defensively and the same thing with Sobe. They're just smart players, so it's nice to have guys like that. They've got a lot of offensive upside. As long as we stay sound positionally, we'll create our chances.

"Sobe is in the right spots. When you're cycling down in the offensive zone, he's the guy sitting there open. He finds those spots. He's a good passer, playmaker and he works hard, too."

The Blues have shifted things around so much, maybe they've found the perfect tonic for the time being.

"It's just a matter of being consistent and doing it every night," D'Agostini said.

* NOTES -- Blues goalie Jaroslav Halak received the most votes of all the goaltenders in the Western Conference, the league announced Tuesday. Halak finished with close to 144,000 votes, or almost 13,000 votes more than Detroit's Jimmy Howard but will have to wait to see if he's chosen for the game.

Fan voting elected Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and Kris Letang along with Chicago's Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith as the first six. The NHL will unveil 36 additional All-Stars on Jan. 11 as well as 12 NHL Rookies to participate with the NHL All-Stars in the SuperSkills on Saturday, Jan. 29 at the RBC Center in Raleigh. The All-Star game itself will take place Jan. 30.

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