The big three. The top line. The SST line. The STATS line. The international connection.
Whatever you want to call the Carolina Hurricanes’ first line of Eric Staal, Alexander Semin and Jiri Tlusty, there is no denying that the three comprise one of the best lines – offensively and defensively – in the NHL.
So, do they have a nickname for themselves?
“No, we don’t,” Tlusty said with a smile. “We are just happy that it’s working for us. That’s all that matters. It’s fun to be on the winning side.”
A simple moniker perhaps isn’t befitting of such an exhilarating, versatile and lethal trio, which has combined for 32 goals and 45 assists (77 points) in 24 games. One of Staal, Tlusty and Semin has scored in all but one of the team’s 14 wins, and the Canes are 13-3-1 when one of those players nets a goal. Staal, who leads the team in points with 30, ranked fourth in the league in game-winning goals with four. Semin leads the team in assists with 19, and Tlusty leads the team in goals with 13.
Conceivably lost in the line’s firepower is its defensive responsibility. Staal, Tlusty and Semin are a collective plus-53, as all three players rank among the top four in the league in plus/minus. It’s a statistic that’s often questioned, but with an entire line firmly in the black, it stands to be an accurate barometer of their all-around play.
“Just from their plus/minus, it’s a good indication of their commitment without the puck,” head coach Kirk Muller said. “They arguably could be the top line in the game right now with their production, but the great thing is their attention to detail of playing well without the puck and respecting the defensive side of it.”
“It’s just saying that we have scored more goals than we have gotten scored on,” Tlusty said of the stat. “It helps the team. We try to be an offensive line, but we don’t want to get scored on, too.”
A sure indicator that Muller trusts the line defensively is when it is the first over the boards near the end of a game in an empty-net situation. The result? Tlusy leads the league in empty-net goals with three.
“I didn’t realize that, no,” Tlusty said, laughing. “That’s pretty funny, though, I’ll take that.”
Muller has also recently paired Staal with Semin on the penalty kill. Staal is averaging just over a minute of shorthanded time per game, and Semin’s average clocks in at about half of that.
“I do [trust them]. Your top players are usually your smartest players,” Muller said. “They react off of the power play. Both of those guys are smart, and they have experience.”
A key factor in the line’s success at both ends of the ice has been the chemistry that exists between the three players. Staal and Tlusty played together for much of the stretch run last season, and Semin has rapidly meshed as an elite playmaker, inconceivably threading the needle to set up Tlusty and Staal.
“We have been playing together for awhile, so we know easily where those guys will be and how to read off of them, how they move and what they do,” said Tlusty, who ranks second in the league in even-strength goals (12). “So you’re kind of expecting things from them more easily.”
“It seems to work now. Of course we want even more, and I think that time will come,” Semin told Dmitry Manakhov of Sovietsky Sport. “It’s more important that the team wins and we are getting points (as a team) and it is less important who’s scoring.”
“When you’ve got your top line playing a good two-way game and capable of playing against any other top line or a defensive line when you go on the road, it’s a nice sign,” Muller said. “They’ve been a great line leading us right now, and it’s a big bonus for our hockey club.”
All three players on the line have skill, speed, great hands and a pinpoint shot. Mix in Muller’s signature attributes of accountability and hard work, and you have the recipe for this yet-to-be-nicknamed top line.
“We all try to play for each other,” Tlusty said. “Everyone makes mistakes, and we’re not perfect, but if one guy makes a mistake, the other two guys try to hustle and make up for it. That’s the success we’ve had. It’s just hard work.”