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'STL Line' Emerging as One of NHL's Best

by Louie Korac / St. Louis Blues

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When the St. Louis Blues made it known in July that they signed center Jori Lehtera and persuaded the Finland native to leave the Kontinental Hockey League for the NHL, nobody was happier than Vladimir Tarasenko.

Lehtera and Tarasenko played together for Sibir Novosibirsk of the KHL for two seasons, and the chemistry was impeccable.

The Blues knew they had two-thirds of a line, and it was no secret that Russian native Tarasenko and Lehtera would join forces once again in St. Louis once the signing was announced.

Finding that third link, like the one Lehtera and Tarasenko had in the KHL with Jonas Enlund, would be the challenge.

Jaden Schwartz of Canada became an instant fit, and although the Blues have juggled lines and the three haven't played every game together, it's easy to see the chemistry on the "STL Line."

Three nationalities have joined as one with one common goal.

After three goals (all by Lehtera's natural hat trick) and eight points in a 6-1 victory against the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday, the 'STL Line" has 25 points in the past six games. It's the hottest line going in the NHL these days, and one that's drawing worthy attention.

They've combined for 21 goals (Tarasenko, with nine, leads the way), which is 53.8 percent of the Blues' total through 15 games. Their 48 points is 44 percent of the Blues' production and a big reason why St. Louis (10-4-1) hasn't missed a beat despite missing key players Paul Stastny, David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Joakim Lindstrom for various stages because of injury or sickness.

"They're playing the game, working extremely hard, checking, getting pucks back," said forward Alexander Steen, who's been a linemate of all three in the recent past. "A lot of their chances are coming off of actually checking the pucks back and catching the other team off-guard. They've been an energetic group playing with a lot of excitement and they've been getting rewarded. They've been playing great for us."

On the ice, the instantaneous chemistry is the reward because of the respect they have for each other on and off the ice.

Tarasenko and Lehtera live in the same building, and they've been able to share a bond off the ice. During that off-ice time, they've formed a close friendship and have been able to talk about the game and whatever life throws their way. Adding Schwartz was a no-brainer.

"It's important for me," said Tarasenko, who has 19 points in 15 games. "If you play with your friend or you play with somebody who's close to you in your life, it's better because we spend more time together, we talk more. We fight for each other. For me, it's better to play with guys that are friends in life with you. We talk a lot about our game. We play together now on the same line so we have time to talk about our game plan and stuff like that.

"I think we all try to help each other. I don't care if I go to forecheck or they go to forecheck. We don't care who scores. We just try to be happy for each other. If you're happy for each other, it will come for you too."

Lehtera agreed.

"It helps when you know your linemates better," said Lehtera, who has 14 points in 14 games. "I hang out with [Tarasenko]. I like to know how he feels; when he's grumpy or when he's in a good mood. Then I'll know how to play or practice with him.

"When we played in Russia, we had a player in our lineup [Enlund] whose style was the same as [Schwartz]. Same kind of hard-working guy. Good skater, good shot. It helps me, a guy like [Schwartz] to be able to play with him. He's a very good player for his size. ... He's a good skater, smart player, good shot. It's easy to play with him."

Schwartz, who has 15 points in 15 games, also possesses an unselfish attitude. With three players sharing the same mentality, it's easy to understand why success follows. Their success, Schwartz said, is not being taken for granted, nor is it being thought about often.

"It doesn't matter who it is, I'll be happy for [us]," said Schwartz, who assisted on all three Lehtera goals Tuesday. "He's a hard-working guy. He creates a lot with his work ethic, his stick and his feet. He's a big reason why our line's scoring right now and a big reason why Vladi's having success too. Definitely happy for him.

"I don't really think about [success] too much. Every game's a new game. You've got to make sure you're ready to go. Just because you have success one night, doesn't mean you take the next one off. You've got to make sure you're ready to go. I've played with Tarasenko before for a while, so I know where he likes to be and what he likes to do. Those two played together in Russia. ... Jori's an easy guy for me to adjust to and play with. It's definitely nice to see us having success right now. We've got to keep working to get better."

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock's demanding style is tough, but the method, if executed correctly, can help reap rewards.

"Offense is offense and they create scoring chances and things like that, but I think it's their checking that gives them a chance to have more offensive opportunities," Hitchcock said. "I think they've bought into checking. Because they've bought into checking, they get pucks turned over and they've got skill to make plays. That's what gives them success. I think it's like any line that buys into that concept. You usually end up with good success.

"I think Lehtera organizes the line. I think he organizes the line by being in control on the middle of the ice. He plays with a real good conscience, so I think he's the guy that controls the line that allows those guys to have the freedom to what they do. But all three guys are willing to pursue the puck up and back; not just one way. They turn pucks over in the neutral zone as good as any line in the League.

"Everybody's excited about their skill, but if you use your skill and you don't have a good work ethic, you're going to be a minus player in this League. The thing that's really effective for me is the way they check it back, especially in the neutral zone. They create a lot of turnovers, and once they get an odd-man rush, they're going to make a good play."

All three players are Blues draft picks; Schwartz, 22, and Tarasenko, 22, were first-round picks (Nos. 14 and 16, respectively) in the 2010 NHL Draft, and Lehtera, 26, was picked in the third round of the 2008 draft.

And now that Tarasenko and Lehtera have found their missing partner, the possibilities seem endless.

"Now we have confidence and feel we can play in this League," Tarasenko said. "[Schwartz] is playing hard with us right now. We wish to be better every day."

Added Lehtera: "Actually when I came here, I noticed we have only good players on our team. But playing with Schwartz feels really good ... and of course, Vlad."

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