Young Tarasenko leading the Blues in the first round -

Young Tarasenko leading the Blues in the first round

(HockeySTL)-- Vladimir Tarasenko was once labeled the “Russian Tank” when he played in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League. After this series, he may have a new nickname: the Russian Sniper.

Tarasenko has been the Blues’ best player in their first-round series against Chicago, and there is little debate about it. The young forward leads all NHL players with four goals in this year’s playoffs, and all four of them have been timely.

Of his goals, three have been game-tying tallies, including his seeing-eye shot in Game 2 with 6.4 seconds left, which allowed the Blues the opportunity to take a 2-0 series lead. Three of his goals have also been wrist shots, which Tarasenko is becoming known for around the league, especially amongst goalies.

"He's playing great,” said Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. “He has a lot of energy.  He's confident in his shooting and we know he can shoot the puck really well.  When he gets time and space he can find the open areas."

This series, without Tarasenko, would very likely already be over, and the Blackhawks would be moving on to the second round. It’s an interesting scenario to think about, considering that it was nearly a reality.

The 22-year old forward went down with a hand injury in mid-March that was supposed to require six weeks, at the very least, away from hockey. The injury had to be surgically repaired and Tarasenko was not expected to be re-evaluated until the end of April. But he got his cast removed nearly three weeks in advance and was in the lineup for the playoff opener three days after ridding himself of the device.

Tarasenko put in a substantial amount of effort in order to be back for the start of the playoffs. Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock said when Tarasenko went down that the forward was not going to let the injury keep him from playing in the postseason. And he wasn’t kidding.

Tarasenko spent hours at the Blues’ practice facility on a daily basis conditioning and rehabbing his injury. It was all behind the scenes work, but the effort was inspiring to the coaches and teammates.

"He deserves an awful lot of credit,” said Hitchcock. “He did the double-extra duty to be physically conditioned to be ready to play. Between the training staff and his commitment to conditioning, he himself deserves an awful lot of credit. He has worked extra hard to be in the best shape of his life right now."  

And that is showing on the ice, where Tarasenko has given the tough Blackhawks headaches all series.

“He’s a good player,” said Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville. He’s a tricky player. He’s had some success against us here. He’s got a big shot. You have to be aware when he’s on the ice. He’s good at making plays.”

“(He is) playing exceptional,” Hitchcock said. “He's been a great player every game.  Young emerging player.  Hopefully he stays with it and helps us a lot.  He really is shooting the puck well.  He's putting pucks on net.  He's not looking to make the second or third play.  Everything's coming at the net and he has such a great shot he can pick corners like he did."

From March 15 to the end of the regular-season, the stretch in which Tarasenko was out of the lineup, the Blues went 6-9. The team looked like a completely different one with him out. Now, they have regained a lot of their old, successful traits with him back in the lineup. But there is a reason for it. Without Tarasenko, the Blues weren’t just missing a regular player; they were missing one of the most valuable assets in the entire NHL.

“The analytics on him is that he is in the top ten-percent in the league on rush attacks, scoring chances, net shots, and goals,” said Hitchcock. “He’s one of the best players in making you pay for making mistakes and then scoring off the rush. So, your game becomes a half-court game. He makes you pay, finishes on plays, and gets scoring chances. He’s in the top percentile of players who get quality chances. He gets the majority of them for our team.”

That’s absolutely been the case in the first four games of the series, as Tarasenko has scored 36-percent of the Blues’ postseason goals so far. The most valuable part of the nifty forward’s game, other than his nasty wrist shot, is his ability on both ends of the ice.

“He’s more than just a pure goal-scorer, he’s a complete player,” Hitchcock said. “He’s willing to check to get his chances; he’s competitive in the right areas. He is smart. When he gets the opportunity to fire away, he knows where it is going. He’s not just shooting for the middle of the net.  He knows which way the goalie is leaning.”

And there’s nothing more dangerous than a player that can produce offensive and cover defensively. But if there’s any one trait that makes Tarasenko a frustrating opponent, it’s his deadly shot.

That blistering wrister is the one that left Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford looking down in despair in Game 2 as Tarasenko scored with seconds left. Most players would throw the puck on net with little purpose and simply hope that it goes in. Tarasenko, however, cradled the puck, and saw a weak spot. He didn’t miss.

“I think he just has patience where most people panic like crazy,” said Hitchcock. “He knows where to shoot it; he shoots it where the goalie isn’t and he’s good at it.”

If Tarasenko wasn’t already a name written up and circled on the opponents’ white boards pregame, he will be now, especially for the Blackhawks who have had the chance to witness his performance first-hand.

 It would be surprising if we have seen the last of the Russian’s energetic celebrations in this series, at least the Blues hope so as they look to down the Blackhawks. But they know for certain that they will be seeing a whole lot more of their talented youngster in the next few seasons.

“He’s such a smart player,” Hitchcock said. “He’s 22 years old. Can you imagine what he is going to be like as a 25, 26 year old?”

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