CHICAGO- You are Craig Berube. You’ve got a whole off-season to think about your line combinations. Training camp comes and goes and you can see these preseason combos.
Then the regular season starts, here we go, and boom, a game in Pavel Buchnevich down with an injury and you’re already changing things up. Another top six striker two games later — Brandon Sad – is out due to injury. And then you start losing games. Eight of them in a row.
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Twelve games into the season, Berube had tried no fewer than 32 different line combinations to start games, which is absolutely insane pace.
“I talk a bit with the players and coaches,” said Berube. “Not always, but as a coaching staff we see what’s best for the game. It may be a different type here or there, a matchup. And a lot of times I talk to players, ‘Do you need a change? What’s happening? How do you feel about your line?’ “
When asked if he’s ever reached an annoyed “what should I do?” stage. — especially during an eight-game losing streak, Berube smiled and said, “You can always come up with something.”
The #30-32 line combinations came right after the Blues lost their worst eighth straight game 5-1 to the Philadelphia Flyers on Nov. 8.
Josh Leivo and Nikita Alexandrov were called up from Springfield. Jake neighbors was sent down Logan Brown went on injured reserve. Tyler Pitlick came off the bench and Alexey Toropchenko sat in for a reset.
And suddenly everything was right with the world. The Blues have three straight wins and will record their best-ever fourth straight win of the season at the United Center on Wednesday against the Chicago Blackhawks. Puck drop comes just after 6:30pm
After changing forward ranks to varying degrees in each of the first 12 games, Berube appeared in three straight games with the same lineup — wins over San Jose, Vegas and Colorado.
“It’s definitely going well,” said Berube. “Chemistry was good. I like the lines now.”
Despite recent success, it’s difficult to picture career journeymen Leivo and Pitlick as long-term solutions. But sometimes a hungry player is better than a talented one. And Leivo and Pitlick are hungry to rebuild their NHL careers. Leivo has spent more time in the AHL than the NHL recently; Pitlick was unsteamed at camp and on a tryout (or PTO) contract with the Blues.
So it almost smelled of desperation when they were included in the line-up against San Jose along with the other line-up changes. But so far it works.
The biggest key was the insertion of Leivo into Ryan O’Reilly’s line (coupled with the return of Saad after missing six games with an upper-body injury). In six of their first ten games, the O’Reilly line didn’t have a single point – no goals, no assists.
O’Reilly has had a goal in 10 games and no assists in 12 competitions.
But putting together a Saad-O’Reilly-Leivo line, beginning with the San Jose competition, got O’Reilly and the Blues going.
“It’s great. We work very, very well together,” said O’Reilly after the 3-2 win in Vegas. “We did a lot of great games tonight. Could have had a few more. Yes, there will definitely built some chemistry.”
Make no mistake, Leivo is no David Perron – O’Reilly’s right winger for most of the last four seasons. But he provided a spark for that line in terms of puck possession and play around the net.
“He was great on the wall,” Saad said. “He’s good at skill games, picking up pucks and fighting guys. That’s what we want to do as a line is supposed to be hard and make teams work for it.”
In the three-game winning streak, the O’Reilly series has recorded four goals and four assists. Saad has three of these goals; O’Reilly has one.
“We get pucks behind us and then we just pass pucks, we trust each other,” said Leivo, who has two assists since his return and had some good scoring chances himself. “They’re two really good players so I just go online and let them do their thing.”
With Leivo stabilizing the O’Reilly line, there was a trickle down effect for the rest of the lineup.
A Brayden Schenn line with Ivan Barbashev on left wing and Jordan Kyrou on right wing has netted three goals and two assists during the winning streak – with Kyrou notching two of the three.
“I like playing with Rousy,” said Schenn, referring to Kyrou. “I feel like I’ve always played well with him. He brings a lot of speed and dynamic offensive into play. For me I just try to play both ends of the ice as well as Barby. I think we both complement him with a two-way play and let him do his thing offensively.
“Barby is great, he is North-South. He will win his battles. He’s good at both ends of the ice. He’ll go online and do little things with his linemates to make it easier for you.”
The development of these two lines has allowed Berube to reunite the team’s most dynamic line of last season: Pavel Buchnevich-Robert Thomas-Vladimir Tarasenko. This trio hasn’t really gained momentum this season.
“I still think it can be more direct,” Berube said last week. “Shoot, net more. Things like that… I’d still like to see her photograph a little more and not always be so cute.”
But the Thomas line made its mark during the winning streak with one goal and nine assists in three games. Defensively, the line went against Nathan MacKinnon’s line for much of Monday’s game and played quite well.
Meanwhile, the fourth line — led by center Noel Acciari — did what the fourth line was supposed to do, grind, hit, play with energy. Berube calls it playing hard hockey.
“If we can roll lines like that and everyone can contribute, we will succeed,” Saad said. “And right now we’re feeling pretty good, so I think they’ve done a good job of bringing us together.”