Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Steen, Stastny, Brouwer providing "sum of parts"

A trip of top-end players recently assembled has makings of being good line

ST. LOUIS -- When Blues coach Ken Hitchcock assembled the line of Alexander Steen, Paul Stastny and Troy Brouwer, he had a little bit of everything.

Steen brings the smarts, Stastny brings the playmaking abilities and Brouwer brings the brawn.

Of course each offers a multitude of traits, but the gist is that there are differing strengths that complete the group and make it whole.

The trio combined for eight points, led by Stastny's four points (one goal and three assists, most with the Blues), against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday.

Hitchcock uses the term "our best players being our best players" a lot, and these three veterans qualify as players that need to bring it for the Blues (27-15-7), who begin a three-game pre-All-Star break trip Wednesday against the Detroit Red Wings (23-14-8).

"I think when you have experienced players that think on the same wavelength, they're going to have success because they're the sum of parts," Hitchcock said. "There isn't exceptional speed, but there's a tremendous amount of hockey sense. I think this is two games in a row for Paul where he's played at a high level and I think that helps when the center's playing at this level. And then I think there's some real continuity. They're very smart in their positional play, so they play a really strong pressure-position game. They create turnovers. That's where they get their odd-man rushes from and then down low, they're strong. They're strong on the puck, they protect it, they buy space and time, hard to play against. They get scoring chances in two different veins. It helps a lot to have a line like that that sets that kind of competitive tone."

Stastny has goals in consecutive games, Brouwer had his first two-point game since Oct. 27 and Steen, two games after taking an inadvertent stick from teammate Kevin Shattenkirk that required dental/facial work, scored for the first time in 10 games but continues to supply strong minutes.

"I think we just work for each other," Stastny said. "We're getting more and more comfortable. I think we've had chances and (Monday) they started falling. But it's not just (Monday). I think even before, there's a couple times maybe where we'd get a minus here or there and it would maybe change the way we play, which is our fault, we'd kind of change our mindset. I think (Monday), we scored, then they scored on us and we just kept playing the same way. It was 2-2, and we kept being aggressive and we created turnovers and that's how we got the goals."

Brouwer, who has nine goals and 19 points on the season, likes the possibilities of what the line can bring. If only they can stick together.

"I do," Brouwer said. "I thought we were real good for a few games when we first got put together, scored a goal or two but never really got going. The last two games, we've been a little bit stale. And then (Monday), we knew with four games left and going into a tough road trip, a tough opponent here (Monday), and us needing to get some wins to make sure that we keep pace with the teams ahead of us ... I like the potential of our line and I think when we get some more guys back, I think our lineup will round out even more and we're going to have three and four good solid lines and 'Hitch' can count on any one of them."

The communication's good, they're playing in unison and creating scoring chances.

"Well you know where (Brouwer's) going to be. If you're the first guy in the corner, if Steener's supporting me, you know 'Brouws' will be at three," Stastny said. "Or vice versa. Same thing, if I'm at three, I know both those guys will be in the corners. I think all three of us want the puck, want to create that turnover, and then go from defense to offense as quick as we can.

"... I think those little plays where (Brouwer) drives middle and kind of brings both guys to him. It’s stuff like that where it forces you not to dump it, where he’s coming across and I think sometimes you kind of slow down and you let him pick up the speed and I think that creates a lot of chances."

But make no mistake: when Stastny's going on the scoresheet, or any of the center icemen, there tends to be a trickle-down effect for everyone involved.

"Yeah, we've been talking a little bit, both of us have been fighting for goals lately," Brouwer said. "We thought we might try wrong-handed sticks for a little while. 

"It's good to see him get some points. He prides himself on being an offensive player and being our No. 1 centerman and he needs to do that ... give him some confidence, especially going into a tough road trip here."

And if Hitchcock can get all his best players "to be our best players," the Blues will be a tough out.

"We're not there yet," Hitchcock said. "We have some of our best players who are playing at a high level. We need to have more. We have to get more of our top players showing us the way. We had some people do it today. ... We quite frankly need more players playing at a higher level for us to have success."

* NOTES -- The Blues assigned defenseman Chris Butler, a healthy scratch Monday, to the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League.

One tends to believe that either Carl Gunnarsson (upper-body injury) or Robert Bortuzzo (lower body) could play on the upcoming trip. Both accompanied the Blues on the trip, as did Jaden Schwartz (fractured ankle), who's missed 42 games and is on track to return after the All-Star break.

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