Vladimir Tarasenko (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
The devilishly clever Russian winger brings the team a dimension it otherwise lacks and now that he has hit full stride in the NHL, Tarasenko will be one to watch come playoff time.
Vladimir Tarasenko was making magic again last night for St. Louis and while there is something to be said about getting worked up over what could just be a hot streak, the emergence of the young Russian bodes well for the Blues. Simply put, if Tarasenko is for real, his skill set may be the missing ingredient for that elusive Stanley Cup.
No doubt the Blues have an enviable number of forwards with varying degrees of skill, ruggedness and two-way ability, but that lingering question of who gets the puck in the last minute when they're down a goal could never be answered.
For last year's playoff preview, I did a story on the Blues and their chances of winning the franchise's first-ever title. Then injuries sandbagged the end of their regular season, Colorado won the Central and St. Louis got 86'ed by Chicago in the first round. It was awkward.
But there was always that "go-to guy" question hanging over the Blues. Tarasenko missed time near the end of last season due to a hand injury and even though he returned for the playoffs, the Blues couldn't get past the more seasoned Hawks. Now he's got a year more experience in the NHL and a player who broke the 20-goal mark for the first time is already looking like one who will threaten for 40. I mean, he can do this:
There was a sidebar to my magazine story that jumped off the "go-to guy" question in St. Louis. We asked members of the Blues who they would want to have the puck when the team needed a goal and Tarasenko wasn't included, since he was hurt. David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Alex Steen and "The Open Guy," all got votes, which could be taken two ways.
If you're an optimist, it's that St. Louis had a lot of options. If you're a realist, it's that they didn't have any. Ask Chicago and the Hawks would certainly say Patrick Kane. In Pittsburgh, it would be Sidney Crosby.
What coach Ken Hitchcock told me last spring was that Tarasenko was a shooter and a player who creates goals out of nowhere – that was a unique skill set on a team where otherwise, Hitchcock could "feel" the goals coming – they were more organic than spontaneous.
The great news for the Blues come playoff time is that technically, the Tarasenko-Jori Lehtera-Jaden Schwartz combo is the team's third line. So if opponents are going to put their best checkers on that trio, then all of a sudden David Backes is let off the chain, or perhaps Paul Stastny and crew.
We still have a lot of season to play and who knows what would happen if the Blues came up against Chicago in the first round again, but if St. Louis can get its footing in the playoffs, Tarasenko will be a potent weapon to trot out when there are high-stake games on the line.
If you're a St. Louis fan, hopefully the highest stakes of all.