Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Blues' top line finding way offensively while blanketing opposition

Backes, Oshie, Perron combined for 14 points, blanked opponents' top lines

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Coming into the season, David Backes, David Perron and T.J. Oshie were pegged as the Blues' top forward line.

When one thinks of a top line, it's natural to associate it with scoring, with game-changers and game-breakers. There are plenty of those to go around on most teams.

But since this trio didn't get off to what would be considered a blazing start offensively, as in lighting the lamp on a consistent basis, questions began to abound if they were right for one another. Is there really chemistry for them to make the marriage work?

(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
David Backes (left) and David Perron form two-thirds of
the Blues' top line with T.J. Oshie.
Yes, the line has six goals and 14 points through six games and is a collective plus-10, but a lot of the damage has come on the power play. Any way one looks at it, those aren't bad numbers all things considered. The group would be on pace to produce 112 points over a 48-game season.

By those numbers, it begs the question: what's wrong with those numbers?

Well for one, Backes hasn't dented the twine yet, collecting three assists in six games, Perron had one assist through four games before breaking out with five points over two weekend games and Oshie's damage has come predominantly with the man advantage. In other words, they haven't produced much together.

What has been lost in the shuffle is what the three have focused a great deal of energy on: throwing a blanket on top of the oppositions' top lines. Backes, Perron and Oshie see the top lines every game, and through six games playing at even strength, those top units have accounted for exactly zero goals.

Considering the fact that they have seen the lines of Henrik Zetterberg/Pavel Datsyuk, Jonathan Toews/Marian Hossa, Mike Fisher/Sergei Kostitsyn/Martin Erat (twice), Ray Whitney/Michael Ryder and Zach Parise/Mikko Koivu/Dany Heatley at even strength situations, it's quite an impressive group of players to keep off the board.

"It's one thing we've taken pride in last year, taking care of their top line or top unit," said Oshie, who has two goals and five points. "This year, it wasn't more or less asked if we would do it, it's more like we just know and we want to do it. I think we take a little bit more pride this year stopping the other team's top line as opposed to trying to cheat and necessarily score a bunch of points. We're focused more on stopping the other teams' top line. We're so deep that scoring can come from anywhere.

"We obviously want to beat the other line. Plus minus-wise, we want to beat them, but if not, if we hold them to zeroes, I like our chances with our goaltending, with our defensive play and our power and the depth of the rest of our lines."

And with the Blues balancing out their forward lines, it's helped produce 23 goals through six games, an average of nearly four per pop. And the onus is not on Backes (third in the NHL with 23 hits), Perron and Oshie to get it done on the stat sheet alone, especially with the way the Alex Steen line (with Andy McDonald and Vladimir Tarasenko) and Patrik Berglund line (with Chris Stewart, Jaden Schwartz and sometimes Vladimir Sobotka) has played.

"Hitch (Blues coach Ken Hitchcock) said if you can negate the other guys, that's a win for us every night," said Perron, who has two goals and six points. "... We want to limit their space on the ice.

"The good part with our team was Steener's line was playing so well, so it kind of takes the pressure off of us. We play against the top guys on the other side, so we take pride in that. So far we haven't been scored on (in 5-on-5 situations) in six games. I think that's pretty good. Hopefully we keep going that way. It's certainly a job that I like to do. I think so does Osh and Backs."

The line has picked it up offensively, particularly the last three games. As Hitchcock said, it was a transition period early in the season for players that didn't skate overseas. Backes, Oshie and Perron all stayed in North America honing their skills during the lockout.

"The guys that didn't play during the lockout struggled in the first three games," Hitchcock said. "But in the second phase, the second three games, they really picked up the pace. That helped us a lot because they had more tempo, they had more speed, they had more endurance.

"I know in talking to a couple guys, they felt like there (were) 12 opponents on the ice because they hadn't practiced on the ice with a lot of people. That's the biggest benefit that we've gotten is that guys like Backes and Oshie and Perron, guys that didn't play, they're up to speed now."

Added Oshie: "Our first couple games, we weren't at our best. I don't think we got scored on 5-on-5, but we weren't playing our best hockey. But I think if you look at our last two games, we've really come together as a line. We've really gotten Perry to hold onto the puck. He slows the whole, entire game down. You only see a couple players that can slow the game down like that. You look at (Chicago's) Patrick Kane, how he controls the play when he has the puck. I think we're starting to get a little of that in Perry. It's fun to watch."
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
T.J. Oshie (pictured), David Backes and David Perron have shut down the
top lines in six games while producing 14 points of their own.
Perron is coming off a three-point night Saturday in Dallas (including two goals) along with two assists Sunday against Minnesota.

"You guys have seen the points. I think my last four have been really good," Perron said. "I play more with the puck, and that's what I think I need to do. I think my first couple (games), I would lose momentum when I would take so many penalties. I took three my first game and it seemed like I wanted to be aggressive just feeling good coming back last year only playing 57 games. I took three penalties and it kind of slowed me down, but I think the key for my game is to have the puck and control it and make plays."

They're not quite at 100 percent with timing and getting all things clicking in sync, but if throwing up zero's at one end while eclipsing two points per game at another is any indication, things are just fine with the group the Blues advertise as it's top unit.

"Once we get time together as a unit, things will come together," Backes said recently. "But as long as we continue to do the necessary things at the other end of the ice, as long as those things help contribute to wins, that's all that matters. Winning takes care of everything."

"It's mostly just timing and the automatic plays that we did all the time last year, we're just starting to do again," Oshie said. "We're just starting to always be in the right position to where we know where the other guy's going to be.

"It's going well, we're improving every day. We've got to keep it going. It's early, but we've got to stay focused on the task at hand."

* NOTES -- After a day off, the Blues were back on the ice at the Ice Zone minus three regulars.

Steen and defenseman Kris Russell did not skate with the team at all, while McDonald was on the ice briefly before departing.

Hitchcock said all three needed an extra day, likely with a couple bumps and bruises, and will be back on Wednesday before the team departs for a mini back-to-back two-game trip to Columbus Thursday and Detroit Friday.

"Both Steen and Russell skate full-time tomorrow," Hitchcock said. "We decided to give them an extra day off. Andy McDonald, same thing. He took the first 15 minutes (on the ice). He'll be a full-time participant tomorrow.

"Unless somebody gets banged up on the car ride home, we'll be back to the same 23."

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