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Blues' top line is scoring, and shutting down scorers

by Louie Korac

ST. LOUIS -- Once St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock went back to an old reliable forward line, it was a matter of time before it would begin to click on all cylinders.

The Blues' top line of Alexander Steen, David Backes and T.J. Oshie has put together quite the offensive run in recent weeks.

Since the Blues' post-Christmas schedule, Steen, Backes and Oshie have been on the scoresheet on a regular basis, and the Blues are accruing points at a rapid pace.

The Blues (34-14-4), who host the Chicago Blackhawks (32-18-2) Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET; NBC, SN360), have received 65 points (33 at even-strength with all three players on the ice) in 18 games from the line, an average of 3.6 per game.

When dissecting what Steen, Backes and Oshie have meant to the Blues, consider the balance they're putting forth. Not only are they producing points consistently, which is difficult in itself, they're asked to shut down or neutralize the opposition's top line.

Although things didn't go accordingly in a 7-1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday that ended a Blues-record 13-game point streak (12-0-1), the group was rock solid in the previous 17 games.

It's a safe bet that they will draw Chicago's top line of Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Brandon Saad.

The players Steen, Backes and Oshie have faced, and what they accomplished against them in even-strength situations is impressive.

Here is the breakdown:

Dec. 27 vs. Dallas, held the Jamie Benn - Tyler Seguin - Colton Sceviour line to zero points.

Dec. 29 vs. Colorado, held the Maxime Talbot - Matt Duchene - Nathan MacKinnon line to zero points.

Dec. 30 at Nashville, held the Filip Forsberg - Mike Ribeiro - Craig Smith line to zero points.

Jan. 2 at Anaheim, held the Devante Smith-Pelly - Ryan Getzlaf - Corey Perry line to zero points.

Jan. 3 at San Jose, held the Patrick Marleau - Logan Couture - Tommy Wingels line to zero points.

Jan. 6 at Arizona, held the Mikkel Boedker - Antoine Vermette - Shane Doan line to zero points.

Jan. 8 vs. San Jose, held the Melker Karlsson - Logan Couture - Joe Pavelski line to one goal.

Jan. 10 vs. Carolina, held the Eric Staal - Jordan Staal - Elias Lindholm line to one goal.

Jan. 13 vs. Edmonton, held the Taylor Hall - Ryan Nugent-Hopkins - Jordan Eberle line to zero points.

Jan. 15 vs. Detroit, held the Henrik Zetterberg - Pavel Datsyuk - Justin Abdelkader line to zero points.

Jan. 17 vs. Toronto, held the James van Riemsdyk - Tyler Bozak - Phil Kessel line to zero points.

Jan. 19 vs. Colorado, held the Gabriel Landeskog - Ryan O'Reilly - Jarome Iginla line to zero points.

Jan. 29 vs. Nashville, held the Forsberg - Ribeiro - Smith line to zero points (although the line scored a goal without them on the ice).

Jan. 30 at Carolina, held the E. Staal - J. Staal - Jiri Tlusty line to zero points.

Feb. 1 at Washington, held the Alex Ovechkin - Niklas Backstrom - Jay Beagle line to zero points through first half of game before Backes was ejected for a boarding major.

Feb. 3 vs. Tampa Bay, held the Valtteri Filppula - Steven Stamkos - Ryan Callahan line to zero points.

Feb. 5 at Buffalo, held the Chris Stewart - Zemgus Girgensons - Tyler Ennis line to zero points.

So in the 17 games prior to Friday, not only had the line produced 65 points in all situations and helped St. Louis to the best plus-minus differential in the NHL (plus-38 along with Chicago), but it held opponents' top lines to a total of two goals in those 17 prior to Friday, and without a point in 15 of 18 games.

"You want to outwork the other line anyway; it doesn't matter who it is," said Steen, who has 23 points (nine goals, 14 assists) in the past 18 games. "Lately, I think we've been working hard, that's been the key. All three of us have been down low in our zone, been down low first guy on the forecheck in their zone. It's been a pleasure playing with those two."

The chemistry and camaraderie is quite evident when they step on the ice. It's been a combination that's worked in the past, and Hitchcock finally said enough was enough with trying them with different components. It's best to leave what's best alone.

"They have to be productive," Hitchcock said. "They don't have to check the other team, they've got to outplay the other line. That's the risk. When you put three good players like that together that's the risk: You've got to win. You've got to win that [matchup] because if they just check the opposition and draw even, it doesn't help us.

"They're good players that play the game the right way. They trust their checking, and when you trust your checking and you've got good players who can finish, hopefully you're going to end up on the right side of things. When we put these three guys together, they've got to buy into that and they've pretty much bought into it."

When players who lead by example are going in the right direction, it's hard for the rest of the team not to follow suit.

"They step up," Blues defensemen Alex Pietrangelo said of the group. "They’re the leaders of this team up front for a reason. They step up on big occasions. When we need them to score a goal or make a defensive play, they’re always there for us."

It's safe to say better defense leads to more offense, and the three have grasped that concept in the past five weeks.

"I don't think they were checking (earlier in the season)," Hitchcock said. "I think they were wrapped up in trying to create offense because that's kind of what we were trying ... we spent too much time talking about offense. They were trying to help the team by trying to score more, and in the end we were getting less. Then when they started to manage the game properly, they're a terrific line when they play predictable to each other. They look faster when they play that way, they are faster, and you've got to have a real disciplined group of five to play against them because they're willing to work for that one good chance and not give you very much in the meantime."

David Backes
Center - STL
GOALS: 17 | ASST: 19 | PTS: 36
SOG: 123 | +/-: 3
Backes has 21 of his 36 points (nine goals, 12 assists) and Oshie has 21 of his 33 points (nine goals, 12 assists) during this stretch.

"I think we were maybe satisfied with trying to play a defensive role and just sit on our heels and try to check someone off the scoresheet rather than putting up numbers ourselves," Backes said. "We've gotten back to playing defense by playing in the offensive zone, keeping people on their heels by being a threat, and that's really been effective for us."

Putting the band back together was obviously best for all parties.

"I just think we're really playing unselfish," Oshie said. "... We weren't playing together (early in the season), but I feel like before, we were over-backchecking, we were over-forechecking, we were trying to make too many plays. It was getting a little frustrating. [Steen] was still doing a pretty good job, but me and [Backes] just weren't really getting the offense. I think lately, once we got back together, we got back to the little things. When the other two guys are doing the little things right, it makes the game a lot easier, you don't get as tired, it's not as much backchecking."

There's a good sense that the Blues, who are 12-1-1 in the past 14 games, know when the trio decides it can and will take over a game.

"My feeling is, with their work ethic, if they stay with it, it's going to turn out fine," Hitchcock said. "As long as they stay with it. Then at the end of the day, we all get rewarded. The team gets rewarded and they get their personal rewards, which is necessary. ... These guys are productive players that just have to outplay the other team's top group."

Recently, that's exactly what the Blues have received.

"I think we just work hard and read off each other," said Steen, who has 44 points in 49 games, "and the rest kind of takes care of itself."

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