Playoff X-Factor: Jaden Schwartz
Hitchcock said Schwartz provides energy to his group of forwards
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In the final week of the regular season, as St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock cited the compressed NHL schedule as one reason for his team's sudden bout with fatigue, he acknowledged one player among his forward group who was helping provide some energy.
"When you see a guy like [Jaden] Schwartz, he's been tremendous the last two games. We need more like that. We need more compete," Hitchcock said after his team's 2-1 win against the Dallas Stars on April 19. "Our forwards have looked really tired. We've got a week to keep winning hockey games and find a way to re-energize ourselves up front."
The next game, Hitchcock rewarded the rookie's energy by playing him 15:45 in a 5-3 loss to the Colorado Avalanche. Enjoying his highest ice-time total in almost seven weeks, the 20-year-old didn't let his coach down, blasting a shot past Jean-Sebastien Giguere in the second period to cut the Avalanche lead to 3-2. Playing alongside captain David Backes, Schwartz has shown flashes of the skill that compelled St. Louis to select him No. 14 in the 2010 NHL Draft.
In recent seasons, whether it was Dwight King and Slava Voynov with the Los Angeles Kings or Tyler Seguin and Brad Marchand with the Boston Bruins, rookie contributions have proven to be crucial in long runs during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Schwartz could provide the same boost of energy for a Blues team featuring a number of hard-nosed forwards.
The breakout moment for the rookie may have come April 1 in a 4-1 road win against the Minnesota Wild that opened a month that has been Schwartz's best as a pro.
With the Blues coming in having lost four of their previous five games, Schwartz started the scoring midway through the first period on a play that was emblematic of what the Blues want to do as a team. He pounced on a failed clearing attempt before aggressively moving to his off-wing and snapping a perfect far-side shot past Niklas Backstrom. In the second period, with the Blues nursing a 2-1 lead, Schwartz made a nifty move along the half-wall before feeding a perfect backhand pass to Kevin Shattenkirk, who slapped home a point shot to double the St. Louis lead.
It was a monster performance considering the Wild came into the game enjoying a 10-2-0 stretch. Schwartz has been getting a regular shift ever since, a likely relief for a player whose ice time had been reduced severely in February. And the Colorado College product has shown the ability to score in the past, with goals in each of his first two NHL games and totaling nine goals and 19 points in 33 games this season with Peoria of the American Hockey League.
If Schwartz can continue to develop and earn Hitchcock's trust, he could be the spark plug the Blues need to make an extended postseason run.