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'STL Line' doing more than scoring for Blues

Forwards contributing in other ways entering Game 5 against Blackhawks

by Louie Korac / Correspondent

ST. LOUIS -- In 2014, when St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock assembled what became known as the "STL Line" with Jaden Schwartz, Vladimir Tarasenko and Jori Lehtera, it had the makings of a group that could score at any time.

Now, the line has added another dimension, making it a tougher matchup.

The three forwards have been scoring during the Western Conference First Round series against the Chicago Blackhawks and are a big reason the Blues have a 3-1 lead against the defending Stanley Cup champions.

Video: STL@CHI, Gm4: Schwartz finds puck, pots go-ahead goal

But over the course of the season, each has become a better two-way player.

The little things have become a big component of the line's game, which is why Hitchcock is comfortable utilizing it against the opposition's top unit, such as late in the season when he deployed it against the Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Justin Williams.

Game 5 is at Scottrade Center on Thursday (9:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports, SN, FS-MW, CSN-CH).

"I like the way that line's playing," Hitchcock said Wednesday. "That line's really playing. They learned a lot last year playing together. … We need them to play good. They're matched up against top players in the world right now, and we need them to be good just to survive. They've done more than just survive. They've been a handful for whoever they play against, which has been good for us because it's given us a better advantage in some other areas matchup-wise, which has really helped us."

Tarasenko, whose three goals and five points lead the Blues, has had a rapport with Lehtera from their days as teammates with Sibir Novosibirsk of the Kontinental Hockey League.

Video: STL@CHI, Gm4: Tarasenko scores off Lehtera's feed

"We've played together for four years now," said Tarasenko, who has at least a point in 17 of the past 21 games (13 goals, 11 assists). "We just enjoy the game and try to have fun every shift. It's not only about us two. Jaden is ... you can't talk about us and don't talk about him. We are three guys together and we're a line."

Schwartz, who has two goals and two assists, is a pesky player who wins puck and board battles, freeing up space for Tarasenko and Lehtera, who hasn't scored but has two assists. Schwartz said it took some time for the line to round into form this season after he missed 49 games with a fractured left ankle.

"We didn't have a lot of games [together] this year with injuries and stuff like that, but I think it's that time of year where we want to find our groove and make sure that we're doing everything we can to help this team win and do our job," said Schwartz, who has 16 points in 21 games since March 1. "Both of those guys are playing great hockey right now. They're motivated and excited. We've had a lot of plays and we want to continue to do that. ... We're having fun right now. They're both good players to play with. We're doing a lot of adjusting and talking as the games go on to see what we can create."

The Blues recognize how valuable the line's contributions, and growth, have been.

Video: STL@CHI, Gm3: Blues take lead with tic-tac-toe goal

"I think they're more well-rounded," captain David Backes said. "They were a little bit more one-dimensional and at times maybe a little bit vulnerable to counterattacks. During that stretch, they were scoring a ton of goals, but they were maybe leaning a little bit on the offensive side. Now, I think they're more responsible, they're taking care of the puck, they're not trying crazy plays and that more blue-collar mentality. ... I'd say it's made them more dangerous on the offensive side and it's taken away some of that vulnerability on the defensive side.

"That growth as a group has been a huge positive for us."

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