Centering a potent line, Lehtera will be a key for Blues in playoffs

Jori Lehtera will put his good 'hockey sense' to use against the Wild in the Blues' first-round playoff series.

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ST. LOUIS — Last Thursday, Jori Lehtera’s face told the story.

With around four minutes left in the second period of a 0-0 game, he drew a high-sticking penalty against Chicago’s David Rundblad. Lehtera bled, so Rundblad went to the box for four minutes and the Blues scored 49 seconds later, eventually winning the game 2-1. In the locker room afterward, Lehtera’s teammates donned their Central Division championship apparel.

"It’s a nice reward for a lot of the hard work that’s been put in," captain David Backes told the media postgame. "Jori sacrifices his face tonight to get a power-play goal."

Fortunately — for Lehtera — it’s unlikely that remains his primary means of contributing to the team when the puck drops this postseason. In the NHL, centers are a prized commodity: They set up high-scoring wingers, help out the defense, win key draws and, when they see a lane, score goals themselves. The Blues have enjoyed depth and success at the position thanks to two veterans, David Backes and Paul Stastny, and to the 27-year-old Lehtera, who’s spent most of his rookie season in the NHL centering scoring phenom Vladimir Tarasenko.

"All year, because of those three centers, we’ve been able to have an advantage in that position somewhere," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock says. "Whether it’s Paul’s line, or Lehtera’s line, or Backes’ line, somewhere along the line, because of the play of those three guys, we’ve had an advantage on matchup."

Lehtera finished the regular season with 44 points and fourth on the team in shooting percentage behind Jaden Schwartz, Tarasenko and Backes. He was one of only two Blues to score a shorthanded goal, and he produced a hat trick early in the season against Buffalo. In the Blues’ regular-season finale Saturday he scored twice, including once against the Minnesota Wild’s elite goaltender, Devan Dubnyk.

Lehtera’s season, however, is impressive not only for what he’s produced, but what he’s overcome. He suffered a concussion, slumping offensive production at midseason and, when April began, a sharp drop in ice time as fourth-line center Marcel Goc picked up play and Tarasenko sat with an injury.

While NHL veterans can struggle as they adjust to a new team, the native of Finland faced bigger hurdles: a new league, and thus an altered game, played on a smaller rink with less space for playmakers. He had played only 14 games in the American Hockey League, and that was back in 2008-09.

Fortunately, one of his Blues teammates wasn’t new: Tarasenko, who had played on the same roster as Lehtera in the KHL. Paired together in the NHL this season, Tarasenko and Lehtera mesmerized. While Tarasenko has enjoyed an All-Star year, he’s also enjoyed an all-star setup, thanks to Lehtera’s skill. Of Lehtera’s 44 total points, 20 have come either from assists on a Tarasenko goal or vice versa. And at least half of Lehtera’s 14 goals this season have Tarasenko’s fingerprint.

"Hockey sense has a lot to do with it — knowing where each other is on the ice," Schwartz says. "Jori knows where to go a lot of times, like I said, whether he’s going to the net or kind of creating a middle-lane drive to give 91 space to make the play. And that’s something that he’s good at."

It’s a partnership that gives the Blues a longer reach going into the postseason against the Wild, and although Hitchcock hasn’t committed to specific line combinations, the Blues’ skate Monday showed Lehtera and Tarasenko together again.

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"Where Lehtera’s line has helped us more than anything is that we don’t want the opposition to get too many breaths and that’s what they’ve done — there’s been a special teams power play, or penalty killing, and then that line trots out right after it or comes out pretty quickly," Hitchcock says. "All year, we’ve had matchup problems for the opposition because we’ve been able to put players out after stoppages, after special teams, that are dynamic, offensive players, so it’s put teams on their heels more than they want to be."

Should Lehtera help the Blues pull off a deep postseason run, it would be a fitting bookend to his inaugural NHL season.

"For his first year, he picked up the game pretty fast in this league," Schwartz says. "He’s responsible in all three zones. He’s kind of a guy that does a lot of things right as far as goes to the net, he creates space for his linemates. Got a good stick. Obviously, he’s got good vision. He can make plays through people that’s not always easiest to make."

You can follow Elisabeth Meinecke on Twitter at @lismeinecke or email her at ecmeinecke@gmail.com.