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|Tarasenko makes Blues' offense tick|
25.04.2014.O'Neill, DanView Profile. McClatchy - Tribune Business News
Last year at this time, the Blues discovered the real Jaden Schwartz.
Then 20 years old, Schwartz had been a fine player during the regular season, a solid, two-way type. But in a six-game playoff series with the Los Angeles Kings, he became something more. He became one of the club's best players.
Another metamorphosis seems to be taking place in this playoff series with the Chicago Blackhawks, only this time it's Vladimir Tarasenko.
The circumstances aren't identical. The 22-year-old Tarasenko had already demonstrated he can be a significant offensive player. He scored 21 goals and 42 points in his first full NHL season. But in this head-banging, heart-stopping battle with Chicago, he has become more.
Tarasenko has become the Blues' most dangerous player, their skill answer to the Blackhawks' Fearsome Foursome of Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and Jonathan Toews. Tarasenko has become a force to be reckoned with.
"This kid's good, he's a good player," said T.J. Oshie. "We want the puck on his stick as much as possible. He can shoot the puck like no one I've ever played with. He's a great player, I'm just glad he's on our side."
Tarasenko has four goals in the series, which was leading all NHL postseason players as of Thursday afternoon. His goals have come at monumental times.
In Game 1, he whipped a shot past Chicago netminder Corey Crawford to tie the game 2-2 late in the first period. The Blues eventually won when Schwartz tied it 3-3 with under two minutes to play in the third and Alexander Steen won it in a third overtime.
In Game 2, the Blues were six seconds from losing in regulation when Tarasenko zipped a low shot that beat Crawford and tied the game 3-3. The Blues won on a goal by Barret Jackman in overtime. In Game 3 the Blues were blanked 2-0 and as Game 4 at United Center passed the halfway point, they were struggling offensively again.
The Hawks had a menacing-looking 2-0 lead when Tarasenko struck again, scoring a power-play goal to cut the lead to 2-1. Moments later, Maxim Lapierre tied it 2-2 just before intermission. In the third period, Tarasenko gave the Blues a chance to win, getting his second goal of the game with less than eight minutes to play. But this time it was Chicago's turn for late-night magic, as they tied it 3-3 and won 4-3 in overtime.
Nonetheless, Tarasenko's performance has been spectacular considering he missed the final 15 games of the regular season with a fracture in his right hand. Still less than six weeks removed from that significant injury on March 15, his hand is less than 100 percent.
But his talent has been off the charts. To return after more than a month and have a measurable impact is difficult to do during a regular season. But to do so in a series like this, where the ice is reduced to closet space, where the hits just keep on coming, is nothing short of remarkable.
Hitchcock saw it coming. He saw the hours Tarasenko was putting in skating, saw the work he was doing to prepare. He predicted that when Tarasenko was ready, he would return with gusto.
"If anything, he's in better shape now than he was before (the injury), the best shape of his career," Hitchcock said. "He worked extremely hard to get back in the lineup, and that's not an easy thing to do. It's huge credit to him,"
And now it's a huge problem for the Blackhawks.
"Give him credit, he's a good hockey player," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "He's got a great shot, doesn't need a lot of room to get it off, as well. (We need) just an awareness when he's on the ice. Every series there's always somebody that seems to get a hot stick -- he's definitely the guy right now for them."
The Blues became a dramatically different team when Tarasenko went down with his injury. The winger scored his 21st goal in a 4-1 win at Nashville, then had his hand crushed in the waning moments.
Without him, the Blues finished 6-9, skidding to a halt with a six-game losing streak. They were shut out four times and scored two goals or less in 12 of the 15 games. Before Tarasenko's injury, the offense scored in excess of 3.3 goals per game. Upon his removal, over the final 15 games, it averaged 1.6 goals.
With Tarasenko, the Blues are a more dangerous team off the rush, a more difficult threat to manage.
"I think he has patience where most people panic," Hitchcock said. "He knows where to shoot it. He kind of shoots it where the goalie isn't. And he's good at it."
At 6-foot and 220 pounds, the Russian "Tank" is difficult to knock off the puck and strong enough to go get it. At the same time, his heavy snap-shot is gaining respect throughout the league.
"I mean he's more than just a goal-scorer," Hitchcock added. "He's a complete player. He's willing to check to get his chances. He's competitive in the right areas. He is smart ...
"And for whatever reason, he's able to get himself some space in the (offensive) zone, which is pretty unique for such a young player."