Saturday, March 2, 2013

Given top line role, Schwartz has grand debut

On night when Blues honor cancer awareness, 2010 first round
pick plays with heavy heart thinking of sister, earns No. 1 star with goal, assist

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- As the media throng gathered around Jaden Schwartz after Friday's 4-2 win over Edmonton, the Blues' rookie was having slight difficulties trying to remove the special laces from his skates.

Maybe it was fitting, since the occasion for wearing pink on this night will always have a special place in his heart.

(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
The Blues' Jaden Schwartz had his best game of the
season Friday against Edmonton with a goal, assist.

The Blues held their annual 'Pink at the Rink' game, done for the Susan G. Komen breast cancer awareness, but just the thought of cancer hits home for Schwartz, whose sister Mandi passed away in 2011 from cancer called acute myloid leukemia.

And on a night the Blues paid tribute to cancer awareness, it was only fitting Schwartz was the No. 1 star playing arguably his most complete game in the NHL. His pink laceswere part of his tribute, as well as his teammates.

"That was the first 'Pink at the Rink' game I've played in and that was pretty special," said Schwartz, who had a goal and an assist while admitting that he was playing with a heavy heart thinking of his sister. "I got an opportunity to play with two really good players and we took advantage of it.

"I definitely had (Mandi) in the back of my mind and it was a good game."

Those two "good players" Schwartz referred to were David Backes and T.J. Oshie, as the 20-year-old 2010 first round draft pick was given an opportunity by Blues coach Ken Hitchcock to step to the forefront and showcase what he can do in a scoring role.

With the Blues dealing with a plethora of injuries up front, Schwartz gave the line something that Hitchcock felt could use a different look. So the veteran coach moved Schwartz up and dropped David Perron to a line with Patrik Berglund and Chris Stewart, and it was an idea Hitchcock felt would benefit all.

"I think we just wanted more balance," Hitchcock said. "It's interesting that Perron and Berglund have gotten all their points together. For whatever reason offensively, the Backes line with Perron there wasn't getting the looks that Berglund and Perron get. We first looked at that combination knowing that we've seen it work before and what could augment something (for) David. We debated between (Chris) Porter and Jaden. We felt like Jaden was starting to play better and deserved an opportunity come up there. It was the line in October that we had together, but it changed.

"The fit against Edmonton was a good fit because of the way they play for Jaden, and that's not to say that Jaden's going to be up there all the time depending on who we play against, but it was a good combination both ways because Bergy and David Perron had more scoring chances (Friday) than he's had in a week, two weeks. Obviously Jaden was a good player with Backes and Oshie."

Schwartz, who's been relegated to mostly playing on the fourth line, or the Blues' grind line, had been jettisoned from the second to fourth lines throughout the season a couple times, as well as into the press box. But the 5-foot-9, 179-pound Schwartz packed quite a wallop against the Oilers.

He was able to ignite a Blues team that trailed 2-0 in the second period with his his physical stature before Schwartz got a big goal to get the Blues going. It was the start of four unanswered goals and propel a victory.

"It was a big goal," Hitchcock said. "If that gets to 3-0, I don't know where we go from there.

"I think he's stronger on the puck than people think. I think he surprises defending players sometimes, and he's awfully smart and he's got a great stick. He's a guy you trust. There's times based on age, height, weight, mostly on age and experience, he's going to get overwhelmed at times. You're just going to have to learn to work through that."

When you impress the captain, it had to be a good night.

"Pretty inspiring effort by Schwartzy tonight," Backes said after the game. "He's always in the corners, plays like he's 6-5 even though he's just a little guy.

"No offense, if 5-foot-10 Schwartzy's going into the hard areas, there's no reason that the 6-foot-2, 6-foot-3 guys shouldn't be in there, too. From a 21-year-old kid that's just getting his feet wet in the league, it's a lot of character shown and some great leadership too that he's leading the charge in those areas."

Schwartz, who has two goals and five points in 17 games this season and eight points in 24 career games, is only getting his feet wet in the NHL so far, but this gives him an opportunity to start planting seeds as to what kind of a defining role he will have moving forward.

"I think it's a work in progress," Schwartz said. "I don't think my role's written in stone by any means. That's one game and playing with two really good players. We ended up having a pretty good game, but you want to be consistent to play on a top six role. You've got to be consistent every night, you've got to make sure you're (making) an impact. Whether I'm playing third line, fourth line or first line, I've got to make sure I'm making my shifts count and do the right thing. I still think it's a work in progress."

Hitchcock agreed.

"If the game (Friday) night is his role, that's a helluva thing," Hitchcock said. "But he's going to have to find a role. If you're going to play a top nine role, you're going to have to be able to contribute at both ends of the rink. Where Schwartzy contributes already is from the red line back. He's a guy we trust all the time, but now playing with Backes and Oshie, at least last night, he contributed from the red line in and in a good way, which is a good sign for us. You're starting to see it every second or third game now, like the flashes that you saw yesterday. That's a good sign for us.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Jaden Schwartz (9) stepped up and played well on the Blues' top line with
David Backes and T.J. Oshie Friday night.

"He doesn't fit as a fourth-line player. The way you want your fourth line to play doesn't fit. But he's a good enough player that you can play him on your top 12. It was finding a spot for him. He was good yesterday because he created scoring chances, he created the forecheck, he did a lot of good things. He's a smart player."

But Schwartz understands it's only one game. He also understands that when injured players Alex Steen, Andy McDonald and even fellow 2010 first round pick Vladimir Tarasenko return from injuries, his role could change once again. However, build off Friday night, and continue making strides is his immediate goal.

"It's one game. It was a big win for us," Schwartz said. "The whole team played well. That was a good game for our line, but (Hitchcock) can switch that line as quickly as he made it. You just want to make sure that you're being consistent and in a role like that, you want to make sure you're on your game every single game.

"That was my goal to make it a little harder for him to take me off (the top line)."

Which prompted Hitchcock to reply when asked, "He's not going out of that role ... trust me."

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