Sunday, September 15, 2013

Battle of fourth line heats up for Blues

Lapierre, Reaves, Andronov shine in shootout
win over Stars; Tarasenko scores lone shootout goal

DALLAS -- With next to no spots left for a roster position on the Blues this season, one of the few battles that remain is who will grab those last spots on the back end of the forward lines.

It was well-documented how well the 'CPR Line' of Adam Cracknell, Chris Porter and Ryan Reaves played, but with the addition of Maxim Lapierre and with coach Ken Hitchcock able to use Vladimir Sobotka on any of the four lines, there appears to be a crowd with only so many slots.

Lapierre wasn't brought here over the summer to sit in the press box, and he made a good opening case to solidify his position with two goals in Sunday's 6-5 shootout win over the Dallas Stars at American Airlines Center.
The Blues' Maxim Lapierre (right) scored two goals in Sunday's 6-5
shootout win at Dallas.

Lapierre, who had a career-high 15 goals for Montreal in 2008-09, was feeling confident in the scoring areas Sunday night. It's an added bonus is he can chip in with points.

"I came in here and I have a goal in mind and that's to play the way I know I can play, like I was playing two years ago when I went to the Cup final," Lapierre said. "This is the way I want to help this team.

"Three years ago, I think I scored 15 or 16 goals. I know when my confidence level is high I can, I can chip in goals offensively, but the main goal stays the same. That's to be physical and be good on draws defensively and on the PK. When I go to the rink for a game, I'm focused on these things. If the goals come, they come. It doesn't really matter to me."

Reaves tallied a goal and an assist and Sergey Andronov chipped in two assists and that trio tallied six points in the game in what is turning out to be quite a battle for the lower end of the forwards.

"At this point, you look at our team and we're stacked," Reaves said. "I hate to say it, but it's a battle for every spot on the team right now. I think coming out strong and having a good showing in these exhibition games and showing that you're progressing every year and working in the summer, obviously putting more points up helps your cause. I think those are going to be big parts to staying in the lineup.

"That was kind of the off-season plan, trying on getting a little offense and chip in whenever I can. Obviously you keep the physical game up. I thought we started off pretty physical, but Lappy had two ... I don't know, I think our line had six points. That's going to be a big part of our team is the fourth line trying to contribute."

So how does Hitchcock fit Sobotka, his do-all fixer into the lineup?

"I think the thing we've got to be realistic about is wherever we play Sobotka ... we play Sobotka for one reason, and we put him there to help the other two guys," Hitchcock said. "Wherever he plays, he makes that line better. So our attitude with him is if a line's struggling -- it could be the first line -- we put Sobe there. If it's the fourth line that's struggling, we put Sobe there. But he's in a very unique position where he's obviously in the top six killing penalties. He's going to be a PK guy all the time, and he's a great player to play at the end of hockey games when he's playing as a center or left wing. He'll play where we think we need the most help to basically stabilize the line. Secondly, he's going to be a guy that is always going to have at least one or two units on the PK where he's going to be on the first or second unit all the time."

Call Sobotka the team's rover.

"I think it was a little more limited last year because we always felt he was a left winger," Hitchcock said of Sobotka. "And when we had the injuries, through necessity, we played him as a center. He showed us when we gave him extended time as a center iceman how good he could be, so I think there's a real level of high confidence for us that he could play center equally well or even better than he can on the wing."

So where does that fit Reaves, Cracknell and Porter? Is there a need for these fourth-line players to play more on their toes? Also, veteran Keith Aucoin was brought in as a free agent from the New York Islanders over the summer. He is a longshot to make the parent club but Hitchcock said it's all up to who plays well.

"I just think it's the best guys," Hitchcock said. "I see the guys in the NHL counting numbers. I see these guys just playing trying to figure it out. I see a sense of urgency from people who played on our team last year at the backend of the lineup. I think they're counting. They don't want to lose their spot. That's what I see right now."

Hitchcock was pleased with the effort, despite the ups and downs of the game Sunday night. He was especially pleased with Lapierre, Reaves and Andronov.
"He started way back, but he's making inroads now, boy," Hitchcock said of Andronov. "When you can put him out on the ice and trust that he's going to compete at a high level, I think that's a good sign.

"(Lapierre) played well tonight, he really played well. Him and Andronov, guys we didn't know. They were good players for us tonight. I'm happy for Lappy. I think any time you contribute, it makes you part of the team right away. He played well. He did a lot of good things. ... (Reaves) was good. He got better and better and more engaged as the game went on. I thought that line was good. Line had a lot of energy. Like I said, Andronov for us, he's a solid guy. He's a guy you can trust out there. He played very well for us."

* NOTES -- Hitchcock said that starting with Monday's practice, the groups will be shuffled a bit and players will be more established.

"I think what you're going to see is you're going to get a really good read on where we're going," Hitchcock said before Sunday's game. "By the time we practice tomorrow, you're going to get a really good read on what we see from our lineup. There's going to be significant changes in the lineup for tomorrow's session. They're already in place."

-- Sebastian Wannstrom and Cracknell also scored for the Blues, and it was Vladimir Tarasenko that scored the lone shootout goal against the Stars' Jack Campbell on the Blues' first shootout attempt. Kevin Shattenkirk also took a shootout for the Blues

Jake Allen, who played the entire game and stopped 33 shots, was able to stop Tyler Seguin and Valeri Nichushkin, who scored twice in the game. Jamie Benn hit the post on the Stars' first attempt.

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