Stastny, Brouwer, Fabbri finding their niche; Reaves vindicated; late-lead concerns
ST. LOUIS -- Last year in Paul Stastny's first season with the Blues, injuries and other factors made it difficult to find the right fit for the center.
Stastny finally found some common ground and chemistry playing with Patrik Berglund and Dmitrij Jaskin, and the trio formulated a nice, steady third line that gave the Blues a plethora of options.
Stastny has moved around between different linemates again this season but has again found a niche with veteran Troy Brouwer and rookie Robby Fabbri.
Coach Ken Hitchcock called them the "best line" on either side in the Blues' 3-2 shootout win against the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday, but this isn't just a flash in the pan. This has been ongoing now.
The chemistry's building, the responsibilities are building and naturally, the minutes are building.
"Puck support," Hitchcock said when asked why they're successful. "Their puck support's been outstanding. That's why they've had success in both ends of the rink. They support the guy with the puck, they're skating over in short-pass support in the offensive zone, they're in sync with each other for puck support so they're creating scoring chances with it and they're getting us out of trouble with it. Both Fabbri and Brouwer are doing a good job on the boards, winning a lot of board battles, getting pucks out. They're just in sync with each other, which is allowing them to be a good line every night. And you can play them against top players because they are in sync with each other."
Stastny set up Brouwer with a big power play goal that gave the Blues a 2-1 lead late in the third period. Hitchcock uses the trio as part of the second power play unit just so they can get as much ice time as they can in all situations.
"I've liked it from the get-go," Stastny said of the line. "... I think every game's been better and better and more comfortable with each other. It's all about sticking with the process. It's been a little frustrating at times feeling like we deserve more, but like I told them, 'It's a long year; you've just got to keep going (and) it's a matter of time.' As long as you're being consistent day in and day out, you create more ice time, you create more power plays and as long as the team's winning and you're a part of that, I think that's most important."
The group has come a long way since they were a combined minus-8 in the Blues' last loss, a 5-0 whitewash in Nashville on Feb. 27. They were also a combined minus-8 Feb. 22 against San Jose (a 6-3 defeat).
"Even that Nashville game where we were (all) minus-3, I told 'Fabs', 'You've got to stay positive,'" Stastny said. "Three goals and there's nothing you can do. Sometimes that happens. I'm like, 'As long as you're creating those chances, you're going to tart scoring.' I'm a break or two from scoring, I think 'Fabs' is getting six, seven shots a game that maybe you're squeezing your stick a little bit, but yesterday, 'Brouws' gets a big goal. We're creating a lot of momentum and a lot of chances and working for each other, that's the most important thing. In today's game, it's tough do things as an individual. I think you've got to rely on each other, whether it's creating that turnover to kind of help support. I think we've done a good job with that. We've communicated well and I think we all trust each other in different positions."
Brouwer had a game-high nine hits (Chicago had 12 as a team) and was a factor throughout in arguably his best game as a Blue.
"We've seen a lot of that lately; he's played very well for a month now," Hitchcock said of Brouwer. "He's done a good job of managing the game properly. I think that's what that line doesn't get enough credit for. They've managed the game well and it's allowed them to be an impact line in the game."
Fabbri led the Blues with five shots on goal and had several scoring opportunities, which has been a trend as the season progresses.
"With younger players, the biggest challenge is for patience in their game offensively because the other team's checking hard too and they get to play, and I think sometimes you have a tendency when you've scored all your life or you've been a scoring player, when you're not scoring or you're not creating offense, sometimes you're guilty of forcing it," Hitchcock said. "I think that's what Robby's improved at a lot now. He's learned to be more patient, he's learned to hang onto the puck longer and learned to skate with it rather than give it up so quickly. I think it's made him an impact player in the game.
"I know he's only 20 years old now, but at the end of the night, you notice him. You notice him by his work ethic and his determination on the puck. He's creating scoring chances, he's creating numerical advantages on the rush and he's winning a lot of 1-on-1's, which is a good sign."
* Reaves vindicated -- Blues right wing Ryan Reaves didn't hide his emotions after he was escorted off the ice at Scottrade Center for a second straight home game and told to hit the showers early.
Reaves, who was suspended three games after a boarding major on the Sharks' Matt Tennyson in that 6-3 loss Feb. 22, was called for charging Chicago defenseman Christian Ehrhoff with 2 minutes, 17 seconds remaining in the first period.
The NHL deemed the hit legal and rescinded Reaves' game-misconduct penalty, which is important because if a player accumulates three in one season, it carries an automatic one-game suspension.
Reaves is back to one on Thursday, but as he left the ice, he slammed his stick against the runway in frustration and with good reason.
"You could probably see I disagreed with the call yesterday," Reaves said. "I think the league did, too. ... It was a clean hit. It was just a Blues-Blackhawks game.
"I definitely didn't think it warranted me being kicked out of the game. Just a lot of frustration; you can't be out there with the boys battling anymore and you leave the boys in a tough situation."
Ehrhoff returned for the second period and played the remainder of the game. But Reaves, as he was in the penalty box, thought two minutes was the worst he'd get. Even that was highly debatable.
"I thought, 'OK, two minutes; I didn't know what he was going to call me for,'" Reaves said of referee Dan O'Halloran, who was the backside official who made the call and only saw the back of Ehrhoff. "Even the charge, I think if you look at all my hits, I don't ever charge. That's not the way I hit; that's not really the way I know how to hit. I always keep my feet planted. To call me for charging, and then I saw him say five minutes before they announced it and told me, I wasn't happy with that. But it is what it is."
The Blues allowed an Andrew Ladd power play goal that gave Chicago a 1-0 lead early in the second but defended the major penalty, along with two minors previously, well against the NHL's top-ranked power play.
"I would say they killed the penalty off," Reaves said. "Five minutes is tough to do with a shortened bench and killing for that long. They did a great job and responded really well. I put them in a tough situation. Whether or not it was a good call, it's still a tough situation for the boys to be in, so they did a great job in picking everybody up.
"It was tough (sitting out). I love playing the Blackhawks. They're always amped up games. I always have a lot of fun playing against them. I don't like watching any games, but watching those games are especially tough."
Reaves said it won't change the way he plays the game.
"I only know how to play one game. I bring energy," Reaves said. "I've been in this league for six, seven years. I haven't had an incident until this year. I know how to play that way. I know how to hit, I know how to do it clean but still do it hard. It's not going to change; I can't let it change."
* Late-game worries -- Artemi Panarin's goal with 1:17 remaining was the second time in three games in March that the Blues have allowed a late third-period lead to slip away.
If you count the Sunday 4-2 win at Minnesota in which the Blues saw a 3-0 third-period lead turn into 3-2 before getting Robby Fabbri's empty-netter with 1:31 remaining, it's giving the fanbase too many tense moments.
Panarin's goal was a league-leading seventh the Blues have allowed this season (tied with the Columbus Blue Jackets) and ninth they've given up with the goalie pulled (they've given up two on 4-on-6 situations).
On Panarin's goal, Kevin Shattenkirk tried to whip a quick puck around the boards but it got past Vladimir Tarasenko. Chicago's Duncan Keith was there to pounce on the turnover, get it to Jonathan Toews, who found Panarin in the slot for a one-timer. Just like that, 2-2 game.
"I think it's all about our clears," Hitchcock said. "Our clears have either not gotten out or being in poor communication. It's not we're getting outworked. It's that the puck has been on our stick and we've done too poor (a) job of clearing it and it's come back in our face. It's something we addressed again today and we'll hopefully get better at it.
"The puck didn't get cleared on the boards; it got missed on the boards. It's a combination of a number of things. It's just stay in sync. You're giving young people a chance there. Sometimes those are the growing pains."
There have been similar instances of failed clears, a turnover ensues and the Blues are paying for it.
Let's look at some of the ones that have been lost or become dicey late (goals allowed within the last five minutes of regulation):
Oct. 16 at Vancouver: the Blues led 4-1 before allowing two goals; one with 3:16 remaining and one with 29 seconds but escaped with a 4-3 win.
Dec. 19 vs. Calgary: the Blues led 3-0 in the third, but when Mark Giordano scored with 3:53 remaining, the Blues had to hold on for a 3-2 win.
Dec. 21 at Philadelphia: the Blues blew a 3-0 second-period lead, saw the Flyers rally for two in the second and Evgeny Medvedev's goal with 3:13 remaining to help the Flyers rally to a 4-3 win and the Blues came away with zero points.
Dec. 29 vs. Nashville: the Predators rallied from a 3-1 deficit by scoring with 3:52 left, and Colin Wilson tied it with 1:32 remaining before Alexander Steen won it in overtime 4-3.
Jan. 6 at Colorado: Nathan MacKinnon tied the game with 1:29 remaining, and the Avalanche scored in overtime of a 4-3 victory.
Jan. 22 at Colorado: MacKinnon did it again; he tied it with 53.7 seconds remaining and the Avalanche won 2-1 in a shootout.
Feb. 14 at Tampa Bay: Nikita Kucherov scored with 52 seconds left to spoil Brian Elliott's shutout bid but the Blues held on 2-1, as the Lightning nearly tied it in the waning seconds.
Feb. 16 vs. Dallas: this one was included because it enabled the Stars, one of the teams the Blues are battling with, get a point as Mattias Janmark tied the game with 6:34 remaining before the Blues won 2-1 in overtime.
Feb. 20 at Arizona: Max Domi made it a 5-4 game with 34 seconds remaining before David Backes' empty-netter with less than a second on the clock of a 6-4 victory.
March 1 at Ottawa: Jean-Gabriel Pageau scored with 2:41 remaining, then again with .1 on the clock to tie the game 3-3 before the Blues won in an 11-round shootout.
March 6 at Minnesota: The Wild nearly erased a 3-0 deficit midway through the third period after Matt Dumba scored with 5:20 remaining before Fabbri iced it with the empty-netter.
March 9 vs. Chicago: Artemi Panarin tied the game with 1:17 remaining before the Blues won a six-round shootout 3-2.
Of course, there are games in which the Blues have rallied and pulled out late or tied that earned them at least a point, but this is an indication of what they'd like to focus in on to make these results more favorable to them.
"That one last night bothered me, but the one that really bothered me was the one in Ottawa," Hitchcock said of the Senators' tying goal with .1 on the clock that brought Ottawa back from a 3-0 deficit into a 3-3 tie. "We had it on our stick four times and didn't get the job done.
"Experience tells you it's a very good thing just to eat the puck, but that's a hard thing to tell a young player that because they want to get it out. They don't want it in their zone. But experience tells you if you just change the battle and you get it far enough away from the net, you don't have to move it; it'll move itself."