Blues riding No. 1 line to great success

News-DemocratOctober 14, 2013 

— "Puck management" sounds like a term that might be used by a stockbroker or financial analyst.

Instead, it's the reason St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock says his top line of David Backes, Alexander Steen and T.J. Oshie are thriving during a 4-0 start.

"I think the thing that their line doesn't get enough credit for is the way they manage the puck," said Hitchcock, whose 4-0 Blues play host to the 5-0 San Jose Sharks on Tuesday. "They don't play high octane, high-risk games. They play a smart, great puck management game. They put it in great places to get it back and that's why you're having success, because you've got three really competitive guys."

Steen (four goals, eight points) began Monday one point behind NHL scoring leader Sidney Crosby. Steen has a goal in each game and is playing some of the best hockey of his career.

"I don't know what he's eating, but I'm trying to get his diet plan so I can get some of that," Backes said Monday. "He's flying and he's got great control of the puck. He's poised out there. He's the best player on our team, no question.

"We need him to stay that way."

Backes is also off to a strong start. With four goals and six points in four games, Backes has nearly eclipsed his six-goal total from the 48-game, lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.

A year ago he didn't get his fourth goal until the Blues' 35th game.

Backes, Steen and Oshie (one goal, four points) have combined for nine goals and 18 points in just four games. They have nine of the Blues' 19 goals.

"Sometimes it's puck luck and there's a little health involved, some comfort there with the puck and the linemates," Backes said of his scoring touch around the net. "It's three guys willing to work every night and that's been a successful thing."

Backes also credited his offseason workout regimen, which saw him back off the weights a bit in favor of more skating and hockey drills.

"I don't know if it's a direct correlation, but what's going on right now feels good," Backes said. "I got a lot more hockey-specific, a little bit more away from the weights, but you've still got to put time in the weightroom, too.

"It was on the ice early and lot more often and it's translating into some comfort zones out there."

Backes' workload the past few seasons found him out on the ice in virtually every situation. This season Hitchcock has used players like Maxim Lapierre, Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka to eat some more penalty-kill time, keeping Backes a little fresher for other duties.

Not that he would ever turn down a chance to help his team win.

"That's part of it," Backes said. "When you've got a lot of capable bodies there and can spread that out, those are the hardest minutes in the game for anybody."

Backes said the Blues' real secret to early success is an ability to roll four lines and wear teams down with forechecking, tight defense and strong goaltending.

"It's not just us," Backes said. "We've got a lot of guys carrying a lot of hard minutes and doing a lot of the dirty work that gives us the opportunity to make a few plays. It's been a really good combination, but it's four games and we've got a lot of work to do."

Hitchcock said the line has imposed its will on the opposition, setting a prime example for the club.

"When we put them out against top players, for us to win they need to outplay them, which is what's happened in the first four games," Hitchcock said. "They've got skill, they've got the ability to make plays, they've got all the freedom to do that stuff ... but they're smart players."

Hitchcock was asked about a recent comparison between Steen and former Stars' two-way forward standout Jere Lehtinen.

"He's a similar player, I would say that's accurate," Hitchcock said of Steen. "Underrated offensively and positionally sound every shift. Very intelligent insight into the game."

Scouting the Sharks

Along with their 5-0 start, the Sharks are making noise thanks to rookie sniper Tomas Hertl. The 19-year-old from the Czech Republic already has seven goals, including a four-goal night against the New York Rangers.

The Sharks are still big and physical, but now are outshooting teams by an average of 42.4 to 22.8 thanks to aggressive forechecking.

Like Blues goalie Jaroslav Halak, Sharks netminder Antti Niemi has s spotless record.

"They've always got the talent, they play hard and fast," Backes said. "If you try to run and gun with them you're going to lose that shootout."

Contact reporter Norm Sanders at 239-2454, or on Twitter @NormSanders

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