Friday, December 13, 2013

Sobotka, Schwartz bring out best in linemates

Stewart beneficiary past couple games, trio
excelling; Halak in goal Saturday, no lineup changes planned

ST. LOUIS -- It's no coincidence that there's been a difference in Chris Stewart's play the past couple games for the Blues.

Call it a will to be a more complete player, call it what you will. But if there's a correlation to what's going on, two key components that typically make anyone better are fueling the drive.

Vladimir Sobotka and Jaden Schwartz may be smaller in stature, but they certainly play a big man's game. A very heavy game.

(St. Louis Blues photo)
Vladimir Sobotka has 15 points on the season after picking up two assists
in a victory Thursday against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
That trio produced seven points in the Blues' 6-3 victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs Thursday night, with Schwartz leading the way with the second three-point game of his career (one goal, two assists).

Stewart (one goal, one assist) and Sobotka (two assists) each had their hand in the Blues' best offensive output since scoring six times against Dallas on Nov. 23.

"Well, I think the line is able to play 1 on 1," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "So all three guys can play 1 on 1 hockey. There isn't help needed. You can get away and get open. Whether we use (Vladimir) Tarasenko there, or whether we use Stewart there, when you're able to play 1 on 1 hockey and get some spacing, it's very hard to defend. So if you look at the goals that are scored, they get away, they get open, they can make plays off the 1 on 1. It's hard to play when you've got quick players who are strong on the puck. They're not big guys, but they're strong and so they're able to protect the puck, buy space and then use their quickness to make plays."

Playing with the puck below the goal line is what fits Stewart's game more than anything. When he moves his feet and is engaged physically, his full potential is in full bloom. And playing with Sobotka and Schwartz, there's no choice but to play inspired and engage.

"I think our ability to play predictable and just really control the puck down low, that's our strength," Stewart said. "Get in the corners and just make those simple plays, taking it to the net. Have it in mind, we're going to get chances and by the end of the game, you're probably going to bang a couple home.

"I've never seen three guys race into the corner before. It's fun, we're having fun. The chemistry is obviously there. It's exciting. ... When you do have the puck, you want that second guy to give you your space and just trust that he's going to win that 1 on 1 for you. When you know guys are going to be reliable, it definitely makes the game a little easier to read."

Added Hitchcock: "They play a heavy game for small guys. They're strong on the puck and they're durable. Their play is contagious. You have no choice but to keep up. I think if I was a player, I would be pretty excited for the opportunity to play there. They play the game the right way, they work hard, they compete on every puck. They don't take shifts off. That's what's contagious."

There's not much difference between Sobotka (5-foot-10, 197 pounds) and Schwartz (5-9, 190) in size, but there's not much difference in their play on the ice either.

"I think he's kind of like me, but he's way more offensive," Sobotka said of Schwartz. "He's got a great shot. He can pass, too. He works really hard in the corners. I think we have good chemistry together and (the) most important thing, we're winning battles. ... When he's got the puck, I'm just trying to drive the net and find the loose pucks.

"We read off each other and we know what we can expect from each other. If we don't have a play, we just chip it in and go win the battle in the corner."

Schwartz agreed.

"I think me and (Sobotka) share a lot of qualities," Schwartz said. "I think he's a very, very hard worker. When he gets the puck, he's going to make a strong play. When the play's there to make a pass or shot, he's usually going to make the right ones. He's a smart player that works extremely hard. He's good in all three zones, which is key for us.

(St. Louis Blues photo)
Chris Stewart (right) put up a goal and added an assist in a 6-3 victory
against Toronto on Thursday.
"He's a guy that definitely guys look up to. It's definitely fun watching him play. He's a hard guy to play against. I wouldn't want to play against him. He's good on faceoffs, he's good in all areas, which makes it easier as a winger when you're playing with him."

Tarasenko, by no means, was a detriment to the line. But Hitchcock likes Tarasenko with Patrik Berglund and feels the Russian enables Berglund to get more opportunities in the scoring areas.

"Tarasenko and Berglund really fit well together," Hitchcock said. "There seems to be some chemistry with the (Derek) Roy, Berglund, Tarasenko line. (Tarasenko) can hang onto the puck so people can get open, and that's what's happening with Bergy. That's why Bergy is getting so many shots now, because he's able to get open. Tarasenko buys time and makes plays off of that."

* NOTES -- The Blues held a brisk practice Friday before departing for a two-game trip that will take them to Columbus on Saturday and Ottawa on Monday before returning home to face San Jose on Tuesday. After roughly five minutes of practice, both Sobotka and Schwartz departed the ice and were done for the day.

No worries, Hitchcock said. Both are fine despite Sobotka being the recipient of the hit to the head by the Leafs' David Clarkson.

"We all threw them off for maintenance days," Hitchcock said. "They did what we needed (them) to do. We made a change in our counter attacks. They got that in and then they were sent off the ice for maintenance. ... Just wear and tear."

... Jaroslav Halak will get the start in goal against the Blue Jackets and will be opposed by St. Louis native Mike McKenna, who came on in relief of an injured Curtis McElhinney in a 4-2 victory in New York against the Rangers.

Hitchcock said there will be no lineup changes, meaning Adam Cracknell stays in the lineup on the fourth line.

"It's got weight, it's size and it's got tenacity on it," Hitchcock said of Cracknell, Maxim Lapierre and Brenden Morrow. "They're a factor in the game. They set a tempo, which is what's been missing here when the big guy (Ryan Reaves) went down."

Magnus Paajarvi will continue to wait his turn to draw into the lineup, but Hitchcock said it's not a reflection of his play. He feels Paajarvi's game is not suited for fourth line minutes.

"It's not the way he's playing, it's the way we're lined up," Hitchcock said of Paajarvi. "If it was a top six or nine guy, he'd be a good fit. But putting him on the fourth line and then saying go bang bodies, that's not his game. He's a skilled guy that does a lot of good things off the rush, so when that opening comes, I'm sure he's going to jump all over it."

Is there a concern Paajarvi will mentally lose some luster after sitting out?

"I think you're concerned about that, but I think that's the internal competition that we were kind of hoping for, to be honest with you," Hitchcock said. "We didn't get it at the start of the year, but we're getting it now. Guys go in, they don't want to come out."

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