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Blues' American line bringing out their best

by Louie Korac / NHL.com

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- They never got the opportunity to play together as a trio at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, but when center Paul Stastny signed as an unrestricted free agent this past summer with the St. Louis Blues, the opportunity presented itself for an all-American line with United States teammates David Backes and T.J. Oshie.

Wife's hearing loss inspired Backes trip



One morning David Backes' wife Kelly woke up and was having trouble hearing out of her left ear.

WATCH: Backes' trip to Kenya

After several tests, Kelly was diagnosed with severe sensorineural hearing loss, a condition that requires her to wearing a hearing aid. And with the Backes family so personally affected by hearing loss, the St. Louis Blues forward and his wife traveled to Nairobi, Kenya this past summer to help children who are suffering from the same problems.

Partnered with the Starkey Hearing Foundation, David and Kelly Backes sponsored and joined the group on a mission to Nairobi to supply hearing aids to children in need.

"I don't think I've ever thought that before -- what my world would be like without hearing," David Backes said. "Being a professional hockey player would be tough. There's a lot of communicating that goes on, listening to people calling for the puck, or hearing the referee's whistle. The skates going on the ice, guys hitting the wall and body checks, and the puck hitting the post is maybe one of the coolest sounds that you get in hockey, and the whole building and the roar of the crowd that follows that.

"Those are things you don't realize you'd miss if they were gone."

The Starkey Hearing Foundation conducts missions in the United States and around the world to bring the gift of hearing to those in need, according to its website.

"One of the things that helps Kelly connect so directly with these people is she knows what a hearing loss is, and the impact and isolation that a hearing loss makes on someone's life, and then being able to hear with hearing aids," said Tani Austin, one of Starkey's co-founders.

On their trip to Nairobi, the Backes family got a chance to interact with some of the children they were helping.

"There was an immediate connection I had with this little girl named Stella on our second day of the mission," Kelly said. "The way that her smile lit up when she first heard was such a gift to be able to share that with her.

"I'll forever have Stella in my heart."

-- Evan Sporer, NHL.com staff writer

Uniting the three wasn't immediately in the cards for coach Ken Hitchcock, who wanted to take a look at them in different fashions and with different linemates. Injuries also derailed any potential connection. Stastny sustained a shoulder injury the fourth game of the season against the Arizona Coyotes and missed eight games; Backes and Oshie each sustained concussions Oct. 28 against the Dallas Stars, with Backes missing one game and Oshie seven.

But in recent games, Hitchcock implemented the unit in order to get a boost for all three. The move seemed to spark each player's respective game.

The Blues (16-6-2) will need their American line and everyone else when they go up against the Chicago Blackhawks (15-8-1) in the Wednesday Night Rivalry Game (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

"I wanted to look at it at practice first," Hitchcock said. "I put a Swedish line out there; I had four guys from Sweden in one line. That's an American line, I got a Euro line because [Jaden Schwartz] plays like a Euro. I'm not sure … then I got a hound dog line [the fourth line]. I'm not sure what I got going, but I wanted to look at it. It was a good day."

Stastny is the playmaker of the group, Backes provides the grit, checking, heavy game and ability to score in all situations and Oshie, according to Hitchcock, provides the conscience.

"We can win those battles and have more down-low puck possession," said Stastny, who played at the Sochi Olympics with Oshie. "… Sometimes it's more about winning those battles down low and kind of creating the 2-on-2, 3-on-2 down low. [Backes] is really good at creating that space for everyone."

Backes has found his game of late, scoring two goals in the past four games. There is more to Backes than just goals and assists, as Hitchcock pointed out.

"I think what we're seeing is a guy that's got some tempo in his game, and he's been a better scorer than we thought," Hitchcock said. "His goals that he's scored have been good goals. I think his tempo is back up to where he's skating, he's attacking, he's not bogged down like he was for the first part of the year. I think he's becoming more of a threat that way. I think some of it is a little bit that he's playing as a hunter, so he doesn't have to play a conservative position like center ice is at times, and I think that's freed him to be able to skate, attack a little bit more. I think he's best when he's an attacking player.

"That's why playing him also with [Patrik Berglund], whether it's [Berglund] or [Stastny], having him play center ice because he's so good on the right side taking draws, he's going to have to play there all the time anyways. But freeing him up by having a guy that takes draws on the left I think can make him really effective also. That's what we're trying to do, free him up as much as we can knowing that we've got to have him on the right side when we're winning draws."

Backes, who has seven goals and 11 points in 23 games, began his career as a right wing but made himself versatile several seasons ago when the Blues needed a big body to play center.

"I'm comfortable in whatever role they play me in," Backes said. "Playing with guys like [Oshie] and [Stastny], who both have a skill set of their own, makes it easier to do what you need to do in order to make us a successful team.

"I've played with [Oshie] a lot in the past. We seemed to click right away and it's been a good transition ever since. A guy like [Stastny], who is skilled in his own right, can only make anyone that plays with him a better player."

Stastny, who has three goals and seven points in 16 games, is still finding his way with what he calls his hometown team after spending the past eight seasons with the Colorado Avalanche.

"I'm just trying to help the team out," Stastny said. "It's been a weird start for me with the first game taking that knee and then I kind of hurt my shoulder. I knew before the season it was going to take a while to kind of get used to guys, get used to systems and sometimes, you tend to overthink out there instead of playing. That's part of it, and I've got to take more responsibility for stuff like that.

"It's just getting back the rhythm, getting back the timing things. That's the most important. But we're finding ways to win, a lot of one-goal games even with myself going down, Backes, Oshie a couple games. Every guy's stepped up well. All lines are chipping in."

Oshie doubled his point total with a goal and two assists in a 4-3 overtime win Friday against the Edmonton Oilers. Playing left wing with Stastny and Backes brought out his best offensive game of the season.

"We didn't play together over there [in Sochi]; we were told we were going to, but we didn't play together," said Oshie, who has two goals and six points in 17 games. "I feel like from the Olympics, [Stastny] and I have a lot of really good chemistry, and obviously Backes and I for the majority of each season for the past five years, we've been playing together. There could be some chemistry on that line moving forward; we'll see."

Hitchcock has been known to mix and match line combinations when things don't seem to be going right for the Blues, and even when he does split up Backes, Oshie and Stastny, it's with the understanding they typically get other players going that tend to struggle. And when the opportunity presents itself to play that unit again, the veteran coach won't hesitate to go back to it, especially knowing what he does about Oshie.

"Oshie's got that youthful exuberance for the game of hockey, which is something that's a special part of a person when you see a guy that is that excited to go on the ice every day," Hitchcock said. "He just loves the game, loves being part of a team. I think that's contagious in a very positive way."

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