By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Blues are putting the band back together, and depending on how matchups go, the "STL Line" could stick together in the Western Conference Final against the San Jose Sharks.
Jaden Schwartz, Vladimir Tarasenko and Jori Lehtera were split up at times during the second round against the Dallas Stars but coach Ken Hitchcock will go back with his bread-and-butter as the top line to start Game 1 today (7 p.m.; NBCSN, KYKY 98.1-FM). They've combined for 30 points in 14 Stanley Cup Playoff games thus far.
"There’s always adjustments during the series," said Schwartz, who has three goals, eight assists in 14 games. "It depends on where you are with matchups and things like that. If that happens, we just have to take it and run with it. The lines are the way they are today and we’ll see how they go."
What the line wants is consistency, and if it is able to bring that, it will balance out the scoring among the top three lines.
"Just take it game by game really," Schwartz said. "Make sure we’re supporting each other, moving our feet. Teams like to swarm a little bit, especially when 'Vladi' is in the slot there’s usually a couple guys on him or one of us in the corner. So we have to make sure we’re coming towards each other, being an option for one another. Whether it’s coming through the neutral zone or the D-zone, make sure we have speed and one guy driving the middle and one guy finding a lane."
Lehtera, who spent the past two games centering the third line with heavyweights David Backes and Patrik Berglund, didn't mind the switch.
"The whole team is full of good forwards, so it doesn’t matter who I play with," Lehtera said. "Everybody can play and everybody’s good.
"Nothing different (about changing roles). Just working hard and shooting the puck and whatever, the normal stuff. ... I’m comfortable with whoever."
Perhaps with Paul Stastny's line going red-hot with Troy Brouwer and Robby Fabbri (they've combined for 23 points the past six games), it could open up some scoring opportunities for the "STL Line."
"They’re playing great," Schwartz said. "We need that in the playoffs, we need every line chipping in and they’ve been getting some big, timely goals for us and each night there’s gonna be different heroes. There’s been times when all three of those guys are chipping in in different ways and it’s such to watch. Then the other lines should give us a chance to get some opportunities as well."
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The Blues go into this Game 1 with the notion that they have to be aware of the Sharks' top-ranked power play, which has scored 13 times in the postseason, good for 31 percent, which is tops among the remaining four teams.
"Well, I think when you have people that have been together that long, things are automatic," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of the Sharks. "I said this yesterday. They're automatic in their release points under pressure. They're going to get their looks. You're going to have to negate some of their looks.
"One of the reasons they're successful is they're able to keep the puck in the zone longer than most power plays. When you have a chance to clear it, you have to get it cleared. When you have a chance to win the faceoff and get it down the ice, you have to do that. You can't give them extended zone time. It's in the extended zone time they make you panic, they force you into mistakes, they force tired errors. We've got to make sure that when it's an opportunity to clear it off a faceoff or after a shot on goal, we have to get numbers over there and get the puck cleared. If you don't do that, when you're standing on the bench, you can literally feel the goal coming. They have the ability there with four guys who are shooters and one guy is an elite passer. They know what they're doing."
In other words, stay out of the box, which has at times been a trouble spot for the Blues during the regular season and in these playoffs.
"You always talk about how teams' best players thrive on the power play," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "This team seems to really work that way, they're very good at making them count.
"I think we have to be very disciplined and force them to take penalties and I think we'll be all right. But you know it's going to happen, we know that. That's how these series go. It's just a matter of being ready for it."
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The Sharks come in with perhaps an extra scouting report on the Blues, with defenseman Roman Polak on the Sharks blue line.
Polak was selected by the Blues in the sixth round of the 2004 NHL Draft and spent the first eight seasons of his NHL career in St. Louis before being traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2014. He was acquired by the Sharks along with center Nick Spaling from the Maple Leafs on Feb. 22 for second-round draft picks in 2017 and 2018 and forward Raffi Torres.
"I don't think it's going to be different," Polak said. "It's just going to be exciting playing against somebody you know. I think there's going to be lots of chirping on the ice. It's expected, but it's going to be good."
Polak is friends with many on the Blues' side being teammates with many of them. He has been back before, but the stakes are much higher.
"I think it's exciting," Polak said. "It's even better than the regular season. It's the playoffs. I'm playing for a different team now, San Jose. It's a great feeling to go here, back to a city where everything starts and playing for a conference final. It's an exciting time."
With so much knowledge, he should be able to get under some of the Blues' skin, right?
"Maybe a little bit," Polak said with a grin. "They have their ways, I have mine. It's going to be fun."
Polak seems much happier since being traded to the Sharks. Obviously going from a team headed nowhere at the time to the thick of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, he embraced this trade with open arms.
"If you're talking about the trade from Toronto to San Jose, if you're going from a team who's struggled a little bit or it's not where they want to be, it's always fun to go to a winning team and play in the playoffs and play in important games," Polak said. "Those games matter. It's always good to go to that team. I'm in that situation right now. I couldn't ask for anything better than to play in a conference final against my old team."
One of the first things he had to do was make amends with teammate Justin Braun, who Polak pummeled in a fight when the two teams met in the playoffs in 2012.
"Yeah, I told him that's where I was sitting after. So I said, 'You've got my stall now,'" Braun said. "Yeah, we got a good laugh about it. I do. He just kind of looks at me like I'm an idiot. It's kind of funny now. It's five years later. It's a good ice-breaker at least.
"I was excited because I know what kind of player he is. He's a hard player. He's really helped our backend, made it tough. So I think that was a big pick up for us."
The Sharks put the video clip of it up right after the trade.
"They put the video up, it was great," Braun said. "I hadn't seen it in a couple of years. It was interesting seeing that again, but I made it out alive."
As far as opening the 'Roman Polak Door,' a phrase coined by Hitchcock, Polak said, "It's still open."
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So much has been made of the Sharks' potent power play, Sharks coach Peter DeBoer is wary of the Blues, who are scoring at 27.5 percent.
"As far as their power play goes, it’s dangerous," DeBoer said of the Blues. "I think our discipline is critical. We’ve been one of the least penalized teams through the season and in the playoffs, so I think that’s going to play into it too."
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The Blues are specific on matchups, and like to get the proper matchups they like against a specific group.
With the Sharks getting scoring from multiple lines, Hitchcock wants his group more focused on the matchups according to where pucks are.
"Not really specifically line versus line," Hitchcock said. "But we perform better when we do territorial matchups, depending on where the puck is dropped. We're much better when we play that way rather than specific people.
"The game changes whether you're leading or down. We're not at our best when we're fixated on the matchup. We're better when we are fixated on the zone that we start the faceoff in. We prefer to go that way more than anything."
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The Blues' projected lineup:
Jaden Schwartz-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko
Robby Fabbri-Paul Stastny-Troy Brouwer
Patrik Berglund-Alexander Steen-David Backes
Steve Ott-Kyle Brodziak-Scottie Upshall
Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo
Joel Edmundson-Kevin Shattenkirk
Carl Gunnarsson-Colton Parayko
Brian Elliott will start in goal. Jake Allen will be the backup.
Healthy scratches could include Joel Edmundson or Robert Bortuzzo, Ryan Reaves, Magnus Paajarvi, Dmitrij Jaskin, Petteri Lindbohm, Chris Butler, Peter Harrold, Ty Rattie and Anders Nilsson. The Blues report no injuries.
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The Sharks' projected lineup:
Tomas Hertl-Joe Thornton-Joe Pavelski
Patrick Marleau-Logan Couture-Joonas Donskoi
Melker Karlsson-Chris Tierney-Joel Ward
Dainius Zubrus-Nick Spaling-Tommy Wingels
Marc-Edouard Vlasic-Justin Braun
Paul Martin-Brent Burns
Brenden Dillon-Roman Polak
Martin Jones will start in goal. James Reimer will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Matt Tennyson, Dylan DeMelo and Micheal Haley. Matt Nieto (undisclosed injury) is out.