Monday, October 14, 2013

Blues' top line leading by example

 By Andrew Allsman| Posted: October 14, 2013| Contact  |

It’s hard to pin the Blues’ early success on any one area. The Blues have looked like a new team this year and everything seems to be clicking for them. But it’s a nice sight to see that the biggest contributors are the ones with the highest expectations.

 Head coach Ken Hitchcock, for the most part, did away with the numbering of lines when he came to St. Louis. In the past two seasons, the Blues, unlike many other teams, haven’t had a clear-cut number one line. It’s been a process for the coaching staff to figure out which players have the best chemistry together, and for at least one line combination this year, it appears the staff chose correctly.

The line of Alex Steen, David Backes, and T.J. Oshie has emerged as the Blues’ top line in the early goings. If there was any doubt about that emergence, it was erased on Saturday when the line combined for nine points in the Blues’ 5-3 win over the New York Rangers.

“They’re competing and playing the right way, as well as managing the puck properly,” said Hitchcock. “When you have competitive players that manage the puck properly, good things happen. I don’t think it’s just they played well (Saturday); they’ve been doing it for four games now.”

On the season, Steen, Backes, and Oshie have tallied 18 points as a line. Steen is the point leader, both on the line, and on the team. He is also just one point behind Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby for the league lead in that category.

“When you have a competitive level like Alex does, and the hockey sense that he has…he’s an elite player,” said Hitchcock. “He’s smart, competitive, plays the game the right way, and sees the game the right way. He’s a big asset for us.”

Steen has netted four goals, one in each of the Blues’ first four, and is tied with Backes for the team lead. Oshie has mainly been the line’s set-up guy, as he has tallied three assists this season.

In Saturday’s explosive performance, the line did what it does best, which is creating chances on the rush. Their biggest strength is their defensive game, which translates to offense at the other end. Essentially, they play the game the way Hitchcock has preached in his two years with the club.

“I think the three complement each other,” said Hitchcock. “They read off each other. They don’t try to do too much with the puck, they don’t force offense. They let it come from their checking. They create turnovers like crazy because they are in the right place at the right time and they are able to make plays off the rush.”

Hitchcock estimated that the line had eight or nine odd-man rushes up the ice in Saturday’s game, which is par for the course for the combination.

“I think it’s a little bit of fear.” Hitchcock said when asked why the line’s play has been so good.
“They play against good players every night, but, when you play against good players, you get a lot of odd-man rushes, and that is what happened (on Saturday).”

“We take pride in (matching up with the opponents’ best players,” said Backes. “Playing in their end is the best way to keep them off the score sheet.”

As Hitchcock said, it’s not just the offense that makes this line deadly, but their defensive game as well. The members of the top group have a plus/minus rating of plus-14 through the first four games of the season, signifying what is already well known: the line plays an all-around game.

All three of the lines’ components were asked why the line has been consistently good to start the season; all three had a similar answer: hard work.

“It’s just three guys that are willing to work hard every night and be interchangeable,” said Backes. “I just try to get in someone’s way to give them some room.”

Backes netted two goals on Saturday. Of his four goals this season, three have come from his go-to position in front of the net. It is where Backes seems to be most comfortable and successful. But his comfort level extends to more than just his positioning. His comfort level with Steen and Oshie is rather high as well. The three have played on the same line on separate occasions in the past. But the chemistry is different, better this time.

“Oshie is really healthy for the first time in a while and his energy is off the charts. Steen is as confident as anyone right now and he seems to be on fire. I get lucky every now and then,” said Backes when asked what was different about the line from past experiments.

For Oshie, the communication has played a huge role in the improving the chemistry.

“We’ve been talking a lot about ways we can improve as a line, ways we can find each other better. It’s been going well and it’s not too hard to play with those two guys. They lead by example,” said Oshie of Backes and Steen.

But in the end, it comes down to the commitment of the players to their team. Without that, no three players can alter the course of a team.

“Everyone is just working for each other,” said Oshie.

The Blues are streaking along, off to a 4-0 start to the season. As long as the players continue to do what is expected of them, the season will continue to be a happy one for St. Louis. In a sport where leading by example is of the utmost importance, it’s vital that the Blues’ top line also continues to lead the squad in the right direction. Right now, led by the player’s with the highest expectations, the Blues are on the path to a successful year.