Wednesday, October 6, 2010

No-goal patrol line a paragon on ice

McClement, Steen Crombeen a mainstay unit for Blues

ST. LOUIS -- In the National Hockey League, forward lines come and go by the fly. At the outset of a game, a trio of players can be on three separate lines by game's end.

Such is life in the NHL and the way coaches like to shuffle in order to make things work.

But in the case of a certain threesome with the Blues, togetherness seems to be a common theme. In fact, even if Jay McClement, Alex Steen and B.J. Crombeen somehow split up, they always seem to find their way back to one another.

Call it a marriage made on ice.

On left wing, there's the 26-year-old Winnipeg, Manitoba native Steen, the do-all guy who can frustrate the heck out of the opposing team's top line with his defensive game, then step onto the Blues' top line and provide a scoring touch. He's also a magician at the point on the Blues' top power play unit.

At center, there's McClement, a mainstay with the Blues, who drafted the Kingston, Ontario native with their top pick in 2001 (2nd round, 57th overall). McClement, 27, is the workhorse, the guy who does a lot of the dirty work in the corners, is relentless for loose pucks and chips in the occasional goal or helper.

And on right wing is the 25-year-old Crombeen, plucked off waivers from Dallas two years ago. He is the one who provides the physical muscle that creates space for his pals and linemates.

The threesome seem to find that chemistry each time they take to the ice, whether in a 5-on-5 situation or whether McClement and Crombeen are up top in a penalty-killing situation.

Any way you slice this unit, the line draws important roles, and the Blues rely on them heavily even though they're a third-line pairing.

"We think there's a real compliment there, whether it's a guy like Beener or someone else (Steen or McClement) who can add some more offensive punch," Blues coach Davis Payne said. "There's nothing wrong with defending or shutting down a group by forcing them to play in their own end. We feel that's what that group does. It forces top offensive players to have to come back, to have to be responsible and if they're not, we'll take the opportunities based on the abilities of that line."

Whether it's Joe Thornton, Jonathan Toews, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg or the Sedin twins, McClement, Steen and Crombeen draw the assignment and look forward to the challenge of being those shut-down guys.

"We've played with each other for a while," said Steen, who tallied career-highs in goals (24) and points (47) a season ago. "We read off each other well. We're able to critique and talk to each other about different situations.

"After a while when you play with a guy, you know what a certain yell means. In the room when we're talking, it seems like we don't need a board or anything. Everybody just knows what we're talking about and how to resolve it. It's both aspects of the game now, offensive and defensive."

Added the Denver native Crombeen, "You have a little bit of everything with our line. Steener's a talented guy who can play both ways, score and do his job on the defensive end. He does one just as well as the other. Jay Mac plays with passion and does his job so well, whether winning face-offs or winning puck battles in the defensive zone and I like to add the physical element to the line. We feed off each other and it helps us thrive in the situations we're put it."

McClement, who arguably should be in the conversations when the topic of winning the Selke Trophy comes up, says it's part of the game and the trio sometimes needs to be separated. But in the end, Payne seems to find a critical role for them in the end.

And they get the job done arm-in-arm.

"B.J. and I pretty much play everything together and obviously Steener has the ability to move up in the lineup as well," McClement said. "He has the ability to play either way, but I think in there, he definitely gives our line an offensive threat and obviously a higher-end skill guy on our line which makes a difference with the style that we play. That may change depending on what happens throughout the year like it did last year."

How valuable is McClement? Well, considering the past two seasons, he's the league leader among forwards in shorthanded time on ice for the season and in minutes per game. Last season, McClement spent 306:53 minutes in shorthanded time on the ice, or 3:44 per game, and in 2008-09, he led the forwards with 3:15.08 total and 3:50 per game.

"He's a great pro, great defender, great teammate, good person," Payne said of McClement. "Here's a guy who prepares the right way, he plays the right way, practices the right way. He executes the structure and the things we ask of him. He plays his role to a tee. That's why he's such a valuable part. I don't know who's calling him underrated, but that word will never be uttered in this locker room."

As for leadership? McClement has worn the assistant captain 'A' as recent as last season and Steen will wear one this season. All three have a voice, whether wearing an 'A' or not.

"I think you know your place in the dressing room with the guys and your rapport with the guys," McClement said. "Either way, I don't think if you have one, it's not like you have to say something. And if you don't, then it's not going to stop you from saying something. It's your personality. If you feel something needs to be said at a certain point in the year, then it's going to be said no matter whether you have an 'A' or you don't."

As far as the most chatter out of the three, can there be a three-way tie? Nobody seems to grab the bull by the horns. Even the more quiet McClement seems to get a word in edge-wise.

"Beener and I, we talk a lot," McClement joked. "We PK together a lot, so there's a lot that goes into that. On the PK, there's a lot of talk. I like to chatter out there. I like to give him a hand when he helps me on draws. When he wins a draw for me, I make sure I let him know that he helped me out."

Payne's insistence to use the offensively-gifted Steen gives the trio more balance than most teams see with a third line. It's a pretty unique situation.

"We feel (Steen's) a great compliment to making that line with him, Jay Mac and Beener a line that they have to defend as well," Payne said. "He does a great job on the top side of our power play. ... He's able to defend on the rush, defend a 1-on-1."

So when the Philadelphia Flyers come calling on opening night Saturday, the likes of Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Co. can expect to see plenty of these puck hounds -- and more time than not walk away shaking their heads.

"I just want to be responsible defensively and depending on who we're playing against, you have to be aware of who you're going against," said McClement, who had 11 goals and 29 points a season ago. "It's about being strong down low and making sure we don't spend a lot of time in our own end. I have to make strong plays in our own end so we can get out of our end quick and also have the ability and energy to play offense."

Sounds like a formula that is receptive to winning games.

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