MONTREAL • When the Blues face the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday, it’s likely that the team’s top line, which has been by far its best combination of the season, will not be together.
Alexander Steen, David Backes and T.J. Oshie have totaled 43 points together through 12 games – albeit some on special teams – but the Blues aren’t getting much else from their other three lines.
So in Monday’s practice, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock did some re-arranging. He has moved Chris Stewart to the top line with Steen and Backes and moved Oshie onto the No. 2 line with Derek Roy and Vladimir Sobotka.
While Hitchcock warned reporters “don’t read too much into it,” it’s likely that those practice lines will turn into game lines when the puck drops at the Bell Centre at 6:30 p.m. (St. Louis time) Tuesday.
“I liked what I saw at practice, but I have to sleep on it … but I really liked it,” Hitchcock said. “I’m going to say it again, for us to get better, we need more participants. So sometimes it doesn’t matter how good you have one line, you need more participants. Possibly it’s the time that they use their impact to help other people play better. We need that. We need more people playing better.”
By playing better, Hitchcock doesn’t necessarily mean more scoring. He says that the goals will come if the offense properly executes the way he wants it to play.
“We need to create more tenacity on the puck, we need more (offensive) zone time, way more o-zone time,” Hitchcock said. “We don’t spend near enough time in the offensive zone … it’s not even close to what we need to do to be successful.
“When you don’t create enough o-zone play, it’s usually a case of you’re not stopping and competing enough. You don’t play good enough defensively because we spend too little time in the offensive zone. So all of our scoring chances come off the rush.”
Hitchcock believes the new lines offer a player who fits the "stop on the puck" description on each line: Steen, Oshie and Jaden Schwartz.
“Alex Steen is one of the best players in the world at stopping on the puck,” Hitchcock said. “Whoever plays with him, he influences that player to play like that. Whether it’s David Backes who needs to stop on more pucks, or Chris Stewart, who needs to stop on more pucks, he has that influence … as does T.J. Oshie. They stop on pucks, they compete, they don’t play on the move, and when they play like that, it has a real positive impact. That’s Jaden Schwartz. He has an impact wherever he goes because he stops and works.”
So it will be Stewart, who has one goal and four points on the season, now saddled on the top line with Backe and Steen.
“I don’t think it’s a good thing that they’re breaking up the top line because those guys earned it,” Stewart said. “I think it’s trying to get some other guys going, giving it a different look and making the best of it.
"I played with them a little bit last year, with Steener and Backes. I thought we had some good chemistry. It’s definitely going to be a working line. I’m excited for the opportunity and I look forward to the challenge.”
Following Saturday’s 4-2 loss to the Lightning, the Blues stayed in Tampa Bay through Monday morning before flying to Montreal.
The Blues wanted to practice in Tampa Bay before departing, and with the Lightning having their own practice at 9:30 a.m., the only available ice time was at 8:30.
Most of the players grew up playing on youth teams that required 6 a.m. practices and perhaps even earlier. But now in the NHL, none could remember such an early skate.
“It’s been a while actually, but it was a fun practice,” Blues goalie Jaroslav Halak said.
Halak, who recently became a father for the first time, said he didn’t have to worry about rubbing the sleep out of his eyes before taking the ice.
“Well you know with a baby now, you don’t get much sleep anyway, so I’m used to it now,” he said.
RETURN TO MONTREAL
The Blues’ last trip to Montreal was a memorable one, particularly for Halak. He recorded a 3-0 shutout over the team that traded him to the Blues in 2010.
The sellout crowd at the Bell Centre stuck around after the game and applauded Halak, who remains a popular figure in Montreal after leading the Canadiens to the Eastern Conference finals the previous season.
“It was my first game back after I got traded,” Halak said Monday. “It’s always nice to remind myself that it was a great game, but it’s the past. They’ve got a different team now and it’s a different challenge, every game for us and for them, so I’m sure it’s going to be a big game tomorrow.
“But I had a great time there, made a great run in the playoffs. It’s always great to go back and play in Montreal. It’s such a great building, great fans, and I really enjoy the game we played there, especially the end. It was really nice to see the people, they gave me a really nice ovation at the end.”
Magnus Paajarvi, who is on the road trip with the Blues, is making progress in his return from an undisclosed upper-body injury but will not be available Tuesday against Montreal.
Paarjarvi was placed on injured reserve list last week and is eligible to come off the list any time, but a after some initial thought that Tuesday would be the earlier he could return, he’s simply not ready.
“I could shoot (Saturday) a little bit, and it’s gradually getting better every day,” Paajarvi said. “It’s not much better, but it’s a little better. It’s a matter of when I can battle, when I feel like I can win battles because that’s what you do the whole game. That’s what I need to do to be effective in my game. I haven’t come to the battling yet, but hopefully I’ll get there soon.”
The injury came at a difficult time for Paajarvi, who had finally cracked the Blues’ lineup and earned some praise from Hitchcock.
“It is what it is,” Paajarvi said. “I felt better for every game. In Nashville, I felt really good with that line, and of course (an injury) happens. It is what it is and you’ve just got to move on.”
Meanwhile, Brenden Morrow remains in St. Louis, recovering from an upper-body injury. Hitchcock said at one point that Morrow may rejoin the Blues in Montreal, but he has not even resumed skating yet.
“We’ll see when we get back to St. Louis,” Hitchcock said.