Even though the St. Louis Blues enjoyed one of their strongest stretches of the young season while veteran forward Alexander Steen was out with an injury, they were ecstatic to welcome him back to the lineup on Thursday.
Steen returned after sitting out the previous six games with an undisclosed upper-body injury suffered Nov. 15 against the Buffalo Sabres. He was at center between wingers Vladimir Tarasenko and Robby Fabbri against the Tampa Bay Lightning, collecting two assists in the first period and three on the night in a 5-4 victory.
“It hasn’t been that long,” Steen said when asked about his six-game injury absence, during which time the Blues went 5-1. “I think we were cautious from the get-go to make sure that I was OK. It was a little more complicated than we first thought and now it’s back to where we want it to be.”
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock seemed a bit cautious when discussing Steen’s return.
“I think long-term it’s going to work great for us,” Hitchcock said. “We’ve got to temper our enthusiasm to see how he does, (how he) gets through the game and how that chemistry of the line works. It looked very good at practice two days ago, we’ll see how it looks in the game.
“We’ve played this line before and it’s been very successful, so we’re not afraid to look at it again.”
Steen had two goals and 10 points in his first 17 games and his absence was likely felt the most on the Blues’ power-play and penalty kill. He leads the team in ice time on both special teams units.
“It’s never fun sitting on the sidelines,” Steen said. “It’s frustrating and I thought the guys did a great job. The goaltending was fantastic and (defenseman Robert) Bortuzzo’s coming in and playing unbelievable on the back end.
“Everybody’s chipped in. Our fourth line has been probably our most consistent line. ... there’s a lot of good things.”
Hitchcock said the Blues need help at center and Steen could be an immediate infusion of talent and energy there. Jori Lehtera was pushed down to the third line on a line with Patrik Berglund and Dmitrij Jaskin.
“I just think we need an upgrade at center ice,” Hitchcock said. “We need to play better in that position. We need more production, we need more puck control and he’s our most complete player, so he’s got a chance to really elevate our game by playing center ice.”
Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk thinks getting Steen back was like getting several players back given the many roles he fills on a nightly basis. One of the most important is team leader.
“He’s a teammate who kind of checks off every box when you look at what he brings to the locker room, before you’re getting out on the ice, things he has to say ... everyone listens to him,” Shattenkirk said. “Obviously on the ice his work ethic is something where if you’re having a poor game you can just follow that and be able to bring yourself out of a rut.”
It’s not like the Blues haven’t used the versatile Steen at center before, though the 32-year-old forward has spent more time on the wing during his tenure in St. Louis.
“He’s a guy that’s played a lot of center,” Hitchcock said. “Sure there’s going to be some time of getting used to it and things like that, but he has the ability to make plays off the rush. He’s great in our own end.
“I’ve played him (at center) when the games have been on the line, especially in the playoffs. He played there a lot last year and was very effective, so we’re looking forward to it.”
Steen demands a lot from his teammates, but expects even more from himself.
“It’s a lot of responsibility that he has,” Shattenkirk said. “Not from what the coaches put on him but kind of what he puts on himself. He holds himself to a very high standard and I think those are the things that we take away from it as teammates, just how much he expects of himself every day and how much he wants to really just produce and give back to this team. That’s a noble trait to have.”