Sunday, January 18, 2015

Blues' top line leading by example

Steen, Backes, Oshie making noise offensively; 
the defense is the underlying story in recent weeks

ST. LOUIS -- It's difficult to imagine the offensive run that the Blues' top line of Alexander Steen, David Backes and T.J. Oshie has put together.

Since the Blues' post-Christmas schedule, all three have been red-hot. They've put up 49 points in 11 games, or an average of 4.45 points per game.

It's the kind of production the Blues (28-13-4), who close out their schedule Monday against the Colorado Avalanche before a lengthy 10-day reprieve for the All-Star break, need from the guys they put in important situations, guys that will play in the upper teens in minutes per night and even 20 minutes or more.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
The Blues' Alexander Steen (20) is part of the team's top line that has
been producing on both the offensive and defensive side of the ice. 

But consider this when dissecting what Steen, Backes and Oshie have meant to the Blues: not only are they producing offensively, which is difficult in itself, they're asked to shut down or neutralize the opposition's top line.

Consider the players they've had to face and what they've done to them in even-strength situations:

Dec. 27 vs. Dallas, held Jamie Benn-Tyler Seguin-Colton Sceviour line to zero points.

Dec. 29 vs. Colorado, held Maxime Talbot-Matt Duchene-Nathan MacKinnon line to zero points.

Dec. 30 at Nashville, held Filip Forsberg-Mike Ribeiro-Craig Smith line to zero points.

Jan. 2 at Anaheim, held Devante Smith-Pelly-Ryan Getzlaf-Corey Perry line to zero points.

Jan. 3 at San Jose, held Patrick Marleau-Logan Couture-Tommy Wingels line to zero points.

Jan. 6 at Arizona, held Mikkel Boedker-Antoine Vermette-Shane Doan line to zero points.

Jan. 8 vs. San Jose, held Melker Karlsson-Logan Couture-Joe Pavelski line to one goal.

Jan. 10 vs. Carolina, held Eric Staal-Jordan Staal-Elias Lindholm line to one goal.

Jan. 13 vs. Edmonton, held Taylor Hall-Ryan Nugent-Hopkins-Jordan Eberle line to zero points.

Jan. 15 vs. Detroit, held Henrik Zetterberg-Pavel Datsyuk-Justin Abdelkader line to zero points.

And this past Saturday vs. Toronto, held James van Riemsdyk-Tyler Bozak-Phil Kessel line to zero points.

So in the past 11 games, not only has the line produced 49 points and helped the Blues to the best plus-minus differential in the NHL (+35) through the games Sunday, but it's held 11 opponents' top line to a total of two goals and without a point in nine of 11.

Perhaps there is more pride in that department than in what Steen, Backes and Oshie have been able to do at the offensive end.

"I don't know if I look at it that way," said Steen, who has a nine-game point streak (seven goals, eight assists). "It's just playing the game. You want to outwork the other line anyway, it doesn't matter who it is. Lately, I think we've been working hard, that's been the key. All three of us have been down low in our zone, been down low first guy on the forecheck in their zone. It's been a pleasure playing with those two."

The chemistry and camaraderie is quite evident when they step onto the ice. It's been a combination that's worked in the past, and coach Ken Hitchcock finally said enough was enough with trying them with different components. It's best to leave what's best alone.

"I would say the word is 'necessary.' That's the way we've decided to build the team," Hitchcock said. "They have to be productive. They don't have to check the other team, they've got to outplay the other line. That's the risk. When you put three good players like that together, that's the risk you've got to win. You've got to win that (matchup) because if they just check the opposition and draw even, it doesn't help us. They're good players that play the game the right way. They trust their checking, which is how they again got chances (Saturday), lots of them. And when you trust your checking and you've got good players who can finish, hopefully you're going to end up on the right side of things. When we put these three guys together, they've got buy into that and they've pretty much bought into it now."

When players that lead by example are going in the right direction, it's hard for the rest of the team to not follow suit.

"They step up," Blues defensemen Alex Pietrangelo said of the group. "They’re the leaders of this team up front for a reason. They step up on big occasions. When we need them to score a goal or make a defensive play, they’re always there for us.

"Their checking is creating that offense. The odd man rushes, the opportunities in the other zone. We’re out there quite a bit and we see how easy it is for us to stay in the offensive zone when they’re creating turnovers the way they are. The way they forecheck, it’s going to make the defense be on their heels."

Steen is a plus-7 on the season, but he's plus-8 since Dec. 27; Backes is plus-4 on the season but plus-10 since Dec. 27 and Oshie is plus-10 on the season and plus-10 since Dec. 27. It's safe to say better defense leads to better and more offense, and the three have grasped it firmly these days from the early games in the season.

"I don't think they were checking," Hitchcock said. "I think they were wrapped up in trying to create offense because that's kind of what we trying ... we spent too much time talking about offense. They were trying to help the team by trying to score more and in the end, we were getting less. Then when they started to manage the game properly, they're a terrific line when they play predictable to each other. They look faster when they play that way, they are faster, and you've got to have a real disciplined group of five to play against them because they're willing to work for that one good chance and not give you very much in the meantime."

Backes is on a six-game point streak and has seven goals and six assists (13 of his 32 points on the season), and Oshie has points in nine of the past 11 games (seven goals, eight assists). He has 27 points on the season.

"I think we were maybe satisfied with trying to play a defensive role and just sit on our heels and try to check someone off the scoresheet rather than putting up numbers ourselves," Backes said. "We've gotten back to playing defense by playing in the offensive zone, keeping people on their heels by being a threat and that's really been effective for us."

The fact that they weren't playing together on a line had something to do with the inconsistent play among them, but all three can agree that they do what's best together.

"I just think we're really playing unselfish," Oshie said. "That doesn't just mean passing the puck to the other guys. It means doing a lot of the little things that are hard to do on a consistent basis. A lot of little things like puck placement, backchecking, covering for the guy, when a guy makes a mistake, backing him up. I think it's just adding up to positive offensive play and positive defensive play.

"We weren't playing together (early in the season), but I feel like before, we were over-backchecking, we were over-forechecking, we were trying to make too many plays. It was getting a little frustrating. Steener was still doing a pretty good job, but me and Backes just weren't really getting the offense. I think lately once we got back together, we got back to the little things. When the other two guys are doing the little things right, it makes the game a lot easier, you don't get as tired, it's not as much backchecking."

With the game on the line and the Blues leading by the slimmest of margins (1-0)Saturday, it was the Steen-Backes-Oshie line which took the game over and helped the Blues secure the two points.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues captain David Backes (42) pursues Detroit's Justin Abdelkader in a
recent game at Scottrade Center.

There's just a good sense that the Blues, who are 6-0-1 in the past seven games and 4-0-1 during their seven-game homestand, know when the trio decides when it can and will take a game over.

"My feeling is, with their work ethic, if they stay with it, it's going to turn out fine," Hitchcock said. "As long as they stay with it. Then at the end of the day, we all get rewarded. The team gets rewarded and they get their personal rewards, which is necessary ... because they're not like a third line. A third line in the hockey before was a checking line. They might be 25-30 point players. These guys are productive players that just have to outplay the other team's top group."

And recently, that's been exactly what the Blues have received.

"I think we just work hard and read off each other," said Steen, who has 38 points in 43 games, "and the rest kind of takes care of itself."

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