By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Todd McLellan is paying attention.
The San Jose Sharks coach saw it firsthand this past Saturday when the Blues (24-13-3) blitzed his team 7-2 and the combination of David Backes, Alexander Steen and T.J. Oshie (who had a hat trick in the game), combined for eight points.
The line is red-hot these days and has produced 29 points in the past six games and will hope to continue their torrid pace when they host the Sharks (22-14-5) at 7 p.m. (FS-MW and KMOX 1120-AM).
Backes is coming off the second four-goal game of his career Tuesday in a 6-0 win against the Arizona Coyotes and he has five goals and eight points in six games since the line was put back together. Oshie, who scored the second career hat trick in the Blues' win at San Jose last week, has 11 points (five goals, six assists) in six games and Steen has 10 points (two goals, eight assists) in six games.
"They're a perfect example of playing the way they need to play to have success," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "They're on the page defensively, they're on the page offensively, they're on the page on puck support. They're on the page on chemistry. They look quick because they're managing the game the right way. They are effective and a perfect example of what good players can do when everybody's on the same page on every shift. That's why they're having success."
It started against the Dallas Stars on Dec. 27, and the production hasn't wavered since.
"I think it was just that very first period that Hitch put us back together," Oshie said. "We had a great period ... I actually wasn't that good. They were good that period, but still, that game, I don't remember what game it was, but it just seemed like everything was more crisp, everything was quicker. We didn't have one guy always doing all the work. It's fun playing with guys that work for each other.
"It's all three of us playing the exact same way in our own styles of play. All three of us are getting the pucks deep, all three of us are working for each other. One shift, one guy's going to the first guy to go in there and get a hit, the next shift, the next guy; next shift ... it's kind of all three of us working together and it's making it a lot easier on us. I think before, one night I'd try doing everything or 'Backs' tries to do everything. Now we're just trusting each other that the other's going to do the job and we save so much energy."
The trio has accumulated numbers worthy of a top line. Steen leads the way with 31 points in 38 games, and Backes and Oshie each have 23 points. Backes has played 39 games; Oshie in 32.
"I think it's a realization that we needed to get back to how we had success," Backes said. "Get pucks deep, going after it and getting three guys go in there winning to work."
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When the Blues, who have won two in a row and outscored their opponents 13-2, talked about being balanced at the beginning of the season with three scoring lines, it took some time to adjust.
But now that they have the Backes line rolling, and Jaden Schwartz back from a broken foot to complement the 'STL Line' again with Jori Lehtera and Vladimir Tarasenko, the Blues may have found something with Paul Stastny.
Playing with Dmitrij Jaskin and Patrik Berglund seems to have given the unit a boost, and they're providing positive results at both ends of the ice.
"I just really think we complement each other," said Berglund, who had two assists in Arizona. "We play a very simple game. That's how we create our offense. We have two really big bodies on that line and we forecheck well. We get pucks back. We want to get the puck to the net as soon as possible. We've been having great chemistry and hopefully we can keep going and help out."
Jaskin has six points (three goals, three assists) since being recalled nine games ago.
"He's been getting some goals and points," Berglund said of Jaskin. "Obviously that helps out his confidence. He's been great. Also, he's got a big body. When he came up this time, he's been much better on protecting the puck, keeping the puck in the o-zone and create offense that way. He's been taking a big step that's for sure."
And Stastny, who battled through a shoulder injury that sidelined him eight games, has one goal and eight points in the past six games.
"They're really talking a lot," Hitchcock said. "They're communicating a lot. Paul's really grabbed the two guys and they've really worked together, hard. I think they're on the same page. They're big bodies, strong players. They're on the same page as far as how they're going to create their offensive numbers. If you look at all their scoring chances, it's like six inches from the net where they get all their chances from. Paul's goal (against the Coyotes) is a perfect example of three guys working hard together. That's the page they're on. They're really helping each other stay on that page."
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Going into Thursday games, the Blues have vaulted themselves to the top of the NHL in power play efficiency at 25.7 percent.
They're 6-for-14 the past three games and 5-for-9 in the two wins.
"I think we're shooting the puck a lot more, we're moving," Oshie said. "We've got everyone moving. We're not as static as we were before. We've got everyone going to the net at the same time. As always, you've got big (No.) 42 in front of the net, that always helps taking the goalie's eyes out of the way."
"We've been great all year, but the reason we have been is we've just stuck with the game plan," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "We haven't tried to dress it up much. I think teams are seeing that at the beginning of the year, we had success shooting pucks and when they go to take that away, some of those plays, some of those seam plays and everything open up. We have so many threats out there at all times, it's a hard time for groups to cover. We've kept it for the most part pretty simple and we take what's given to us.
"The thing we've struggled with in the past is the teams that have pressured us. We've done a good job at figuring out how to deal with that. moving pucks quickly and not allowing them to set up that pressure. That's what's really made us successful. We've really been quick and very deliberate."
When the Blues have trouble, they tend to be met with fierce force from the opposition at the blue line, making zone entries tough. That hasn't been the case recently, and the offensive zone faceoff percentage helps in that regard.
"The entries are key," Shattenkirk said. "The faceoffs for us are huge. We do so well on power play faceoffs that we don't really allow teams to ice the puck and set up their forecheck. We shoot pucks right off the faceoff to get our scoring opportunities. Really everything's clocking right now. There's going to be times when it's not and it's a matter of remembering the recipe that works for us."
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It's no coincidence that when Schwartz plays, the Blues have success.
They went 1-5-1 without Schwartz in the lineup but have won eight in a row with him in the lineup and have outscored the opposition 37-15 in that stretch.
"No one likes sitting out," Schwartz said. "It (stinks), especially when the team's on the road and you've just got to watch the games and especially when the team's losing with how tight the standings are. The team was playing some good hockey, no question. We just couldn't find ways to seal games out. It's frustrating watching, but definitely made me more anxious to get back."
This is the second time Schwartz has sustained a similar injury, and one he knew when to push and when not to push the buttons.
"I wanted to come in and obviously help and do my part and contribute for the team," Schwartz said. "When we were losing games there, we were playing well. For some reason, we couldn't put 60 minutes together. Teams kind of scored two, three goals right in a row and kind of caught us off guard or kind of swung momentum their way. The team wasn't playing awful. I didn't have to come in and change too much. It was really only a matter of time before we started putting some wins together."
"We had that tough stretch when Ells (Brian Elliott) went down and Schwartzy went out, we went through a tough stretch," Hitchcock said. "We still maintained, we kept our head above water, but our play in some cases is a lot better, especially on the power play, creating offense. I think we're like anybody else. I'd like us to be faster defensively. We're still a little bit slow defensively with our reaction, our anticipation and our cutting off plays is still a little bit slow. That's the one element I'd like to see us get better at, is be able to play way faster defensively if we can."
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When the Blues drop the puck tonight, Joakim Lindstrom will be in a familiar spot in recent games: the press box.
Lindstrom, who has six points (three goals, three assists) in 28 games, played in 17 of the first 18 games this season. But tonight will mark the eighth time in 11 games Lindstrom will be as healthy scratch.
But instead of pouting or sulking, Lindstrom is doing all he can to get back to the lineup, and the coaching staff is noticing.
"It's going to be tough. When he goes in, I know one thing, if he goes in, the way he's going at it now, I don't think he's going to come out," Hitchcock said. "I think he's got a second wind now. I think this first go was tough for him now because it was a lot new. But we see things in practice that are pretty impressive. We've won a couple games. If someone happens to blink here, I think he's going to really take advantage of it. He seems to really have risen his level and I think we have a new appreciation having worked with him, how smart he is defensively. I think he's going to take advantage of the next situation because he's got his wind back again."
Lindstrom, who signed a one-year, $700,000 contract as a free agent this past summer to return to the NHL after a stint in Sweden playing for Skelleftea, is pushing those in the lineup to stay on their toes.
"Definitely. That's my mindset coming in here," Lindstrom said. "A positive, confident attitude. Just work as hard as I can.
"I'm no different than anyone else. I want to play just as bad as everyone else, but I realize I'm part of the team and we won the last couple games here and played well. I understand that part too."
Lindstrom, much like Lehtera, has had to adjust to the differences of not only playing in the NHL but the travel, how compacted the games are and everything else that goes with being here.
"I think it's very hard for players who haven't played in this NHL environment to get used to proximity of games, travel, back-to-backs," Hitchcock said. "I've said this before, neither one of these players (Lindstrom and Lehtera) have played back-to-back games for six, seven, eight years. It's been a real adjustment. Playing three in four nights, you never hear that. They don't base games on weekends or anything like that. They base them between two or three gaps between every game. For me, he had a difficult adjustment. Things were coming up fast. New rink, new buildings, smaller ice surface, lots of travel, lots of hockey. So to me now, he looks a lot like Lehtera. He's got a second wind now."
"I feel good in practice," he said. "I work extremely hard. I'll be ready physically and mentally for whenever it's my turn or whatever happens. I don't get down on myself or become a 'Debbie Downer.' It is what it is. It's professional sports. I'm a pro.
"We have an ongoing conversation or dialogue with one another. I think we're on the same page. We talk to each other each and every day. We have an awesome group of guys here. That definitely helps. "
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The Blues' probable lineup:
Alexander Steen-David Backes-T.J. Oshie
Jaden Schwartz-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko
Dmitrij Jaskin-Paul Stastny-Patrik Berglund
Steve Ott-Maxim Lapierre-Ryan Reaves
Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo
Carl Gunnarsson-Kevin Shattenkirk
Barret Jackman-Chris Butler
Brian Elliott will start in goal. Jake Allen will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Martin Brodeur, Joakim Lindstrom and Ian Cole.
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The Sharks' probable lineup:
Barclay Goodrow-Patrick Marleau-Tommy Wingels
Melker Karlsson-Logan Couture-Joe Pavelski
Tomas Hertl-James Sheppard-Matt Nieto
John Scott-Andrew Desjardins-Freddie Hamilton
Marc-Edouard Vlasic-Brent Burns
Brenden Dillon-Justin Braun
Matt Irwin-Matt Tennyson
Antti Niemi will get the start in goal. Alex Stalock will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Scott Hannan and Tye McGinn. Joe Thornton (upper body), Tyler Kennedy (shoulder), Raffi Torres (knee) and Mike Brown (lower body) are out with injuries.