Here we go: Blues’ talented STL line looks to be back in sync
ST. LOUIS — When it comes to pure skill and firepower, one line stands out for the red-hot Blues offense.
All-Star Vladimir Tarasenko leads the way, but he wouldn’t have 23 goals without the help of forwards Jori Lehtera and Jaden Schwartz. All three are healthy and together again, so it’s no surprise they’re getting back on track and finding the net with increasing frequency.
Coach Ken Hitchcock says the difference has been returning to their strengths, something they got away from Saturday as the entire team struggled early against Carolina. Tarasenko took a long pass up the ice from Kevin Shattenkirk and responded in dramatic fashion with yet another spectacular move before he got his own rebound for a goal, this one to tie the game in the third period of St. Louis’ eventual 5-4 shootout win.
"That’s the goal for us is to get him to play that way because he gave one stutter step, went straight north with the puck and I don’t think there’s five defensemen in the league that can play with him when he does that," Hitchcock says. "That’s the mannerism we want to see is they’re taking the puck hard to the net."
It sounds simple enough, and all three forwards have made it look easy at times this season. Their dynamic puck-handling and shooting skills cause nightmares for opposing defenses and goaltenders, and allow them to create chances out of almost any situation.
The trio could hardly be stopped in a 6-0 win at Arizona and a 7-2 win over San Jose, combining for two goals and six assists. Those numbers didn’t even tell the whole story, since Tarasenko’s goal-scoring drought reached five games and he missed the net on multiple chances well within his usual range.
Despite those struggles from its star, the line played some of its best hockey since November, when the three forwards shouldered the bulk of the St. Louis offense. That caught the attention of teams around the league, and veteran center Paul Stastny says extra focus from defenses may have slowed them down as much as anything else.
Tarasenko kept scoring, but the line slowly lost some of its luster as the Blues rolled past Thanksgiving. Then Schwartz went down with a foot injury Dec. 16, and the STL line felt the worst of a team-wide slump as Tarasenko and Lehtera combined for just six points with multiple linemates.
The Blues went 1-5-1 during that tough stretch, a far cry from their season-long seven-game win streak in early November, when Tarasenko alone scored eight goals. Lehtera added seven points during that run, and Schwartz has left no doubt about the importance of his role since his return last Saturday.
"That line there with Schwartz back, there’s just chemistry there," Shattenkirk says. "I think when they have all three of them going it’s a driving force."
Poor play by Lehtera and a slow start for everyone against the Hurricanes led Hitchcock to move Stastny to center with Tarasenko and Schwartz, something the veteran coach says he’ll keep in mind as an option moving forward. But the original trio practiced together again Monday and will need far more than one bad game to be broken up for good.
They’ve also benefited from the outstanding recent play by the Blues’ top line of David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Alexander Steen, which relies more on physical play and hard work in the offensive zone. Opposing teams have shifted their focus to try to limit the scoring from that group, leading to more openings for Tarasenko and his line.
"I needed to worry about the Olympic stuff (last year) and the lockout when it was (2012-13) and started at the halfway point," says Tarasenko, who will represent the Blues along with Shattenkirk at the All-Star Game on Jan. 25. "This is my first full year and I feel real comfortable right now."
Life has gotten easier for him now that he’s broken his season-long scoring drought and is getting plenty of support from the other Blues forwards, creating a no-win situation for opposing defenses. They haven’t found an answer yet, and the Blues are averaging six goals per game in four games since Schwartz’s return.
The STL line looks to be back in sync with its incredible passing and movement on its way to the net. In fact, Hitchcock says sometimes they have a tendency to try to do too much or aren’t selfish enough.
"They see the game as making the next play might be the better alternative, whereas we see it in a more direct fashion," Hitchcock says. "Like anything else, they probably see a more creative play at times."
If they don’t outthink themselves and Tarasenko starts shooting well again, they could be downright deadly.