Sunday, October 13, 2013

Blues' top line helping set bar to 4-0-0 start

Steen, Backes, Oshie accept challenge of shutting down
opposition, setting tone offensively with a combined 18 points in four games

ST. LOUIS -- If one were to put together a synopsis describing the Blues' top line, it would involve three different traits with one common denominator.

The left wing would be described as having smart hockey sense with a booming shot, the center as the battering ram creating space for his teammates with a lethal wrister and the right wing as relentless whose engine never stops.

But for Alexander Steen, David Backes and T.J. Oshie, they all share a common aspect: "The thing we have in common is that we enjoy working," Steen said. In other words, a blue collar mentality.

(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
T.J. Oshie (74) is healthy and part of one of the top offensive lines in the
NHL with David Backes and Alexander Steen.

Steen, the Blues' leading scorer with eight points (four goals, four assists) and second in the NHL behind Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby's nine points, had four points and was part of the unit's nine-point effort Saturday night in a 5-3 win over the New York Rangers. The trio has 18 points through four games (Backes has four goals and two assists, while Oshie has contributed a goal and three assists) and is setting an offensive inferno right now. They've helped the Blues to a franchise-best four straight wins to begin a season and they've done so in a multitude of ways.

The group has the ability to provide necessary offense, but in the Blues' system, coach Ken Hitchcock gives this group the assignment of shutting down the opposing team's top line. It's a defensive mentality but the offense is spreading at a frantic pace.

Not only have they been able to limit the opposing team one even strength goal in four games, but Steen, Backes and Oshie are averaging 4.5 points per game, which would translate to 369 points in an 82-game season.

Of course it's ridiculous to think they can stay on that course, but they've taken the onus upon themselves to set the offensive tone, which has been an area that has seemingly kept the Blues from bigger goals in the last couple seasons.

"I think they're competing and playing the right way and managing the puck properly and when you've got players that manage the puck properly, good things happen," Hitchcock said. "They've been doing that for four games now. I just don't think that they (only) played well (Saturday). ... I think it's a little bit of fear too because they play against good players every night. But as you saw again (against the Rangers), when you play against good players, you usually get odd-man rushes.

"I just think the three complement each other. They read off each other well ... like I said, they don't try to do too much with the puck. They don't force offense. They let it come from their checking. They create turnovers like crazy because they're in the right place. They're on the right side of the puck, and then they go. And they're able to make plays off the rush. And they're big bodies going at you, big competitive guys going at you. They're playing against top players and they must have had eight or nine odd-man rushes (Saturday) because they check. They check well."

Backes, who scored his third goal in the 20th game a season ago and his fourth in the 35th game, calls their play simple and direct with an ability to play anywhere on the ice.

"It's nothing by design. That's part of our strength," Backes said. "I think we're all interchangeable, whether we're left wing, right wing, down low in the d-zone, in the o-zone, down low battling for the puck or the shooter in the slot. The interchangeable qualities we have really helps us play fluidly and not have to worry about who's center, who's doing this and that."

It's not the first time Backes, Steen and Oshie have played together before, but it's most definitely their most productive stretch of games at both ends of the ice. They've been able to play that shutdown game before, but if the offense continues at even a fraction of what it's been like, the Blues will win a lot of hockey games this season.

"I think we're three hardworking guys," Steen said. "... Right now we're just working hard and we've been getting some lucky bounces. Really it's just been hard work.

"We've been working hard, trying to do the simple things. Read off each other. I think right now it's been a lot of inspiration. I think everybody was really itching to get going all throughout camp. It was just one of those years where camp felt really long."

Having all three healthy, particularly Oshie so he can provide that relentless ice presence, gives added bonus to both Backes and Steen.

(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
David Backes (middle) has six points in four games for the Blues. Add
Alexander Steen's eight points and T.J. Oshie's four, the Blues' top line
has 18 points in four games.
"Osh is real healthy for the first time in a little while and his energy is off the charts," Backes said. "Steener is as confident as anyone right now and he seems to be on fire. And I get lucky every now and then. Between the three of us, it's something that we take pride in, where we're matched up against the other team's top line typically and playing in their end is the best way to keep them off the scoresheet."

Added Oshie, whose overcome wrist and ankle injuries: "I think a couple of years ago, I had a wrist injury lingering and then a couple of broken ankles in there. I feel good right now -- knock on wood, stay healthy this year -- but I feel great. Had a great summer working out.

"We've been talking a lot about ways we can improve as a line, ways that we can find each other a little bit more on close, quick support and making 2-on-1's all over the ice instead of everyone trying to beat a guy 1-on-1. So, it's been going well and it's not hard playing with those two guys. They lead by example."

And leading by example means staying humble and striving for more, and with three players wearing leadership letters, that shouldn't be an issue.

"Right now it's been working, but like I said, it's game four," Steen said. "We have 78 (games remaining), so we have to continue to play."

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