When the Blues went on a power play late in the second period of a pivotal Game 6 in Chicago, the Blackhawks assumed that they would have to contain St. Louis forward Vladimir Tarasenko. That wasn’t the case.
Tarasenko saw just eight seconds of ice time during what became the most controversial two minutes of the 6-3 loss. Television cameras caught an animated Tarasenko discussing things with head coach Ken Hitchcock as the team exited the bench for the intermission.
Tarasenko, who had scored his fourth goal of the series earlier in the game, was expecting to make an impact on the man-advantage. After he posted a 40-goal season, that expectation is not far-fetched and it’s conceivable to assume that Tarasenko should be on the ice for the majority of any power play opportunity.
"I think he felt like (Saturday) he could have helped on that power play,” said Hitchcock when asked about Tarasenko’s noticeable frustration. “We didn't get a change on the power play because we had the thing in the end all the time. That's what happens when you've got a guy like that that wants to make a difference. I love it. I love it in him.”
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The issue on Saturday was that Tarasenko’s line was on the ice when the penalty was called and the Blues’ second power play unit sustained pressure throughout the penalty’s length. Hitchcock said this was the reason his star forward wasn’t on the ice prior to the final eight seconds of the power play.
“What we weighed was they just came off the long shift and they were tired,” said Hitchcock. “So I was trying to cheat to get time to give them a rest but the referee wouldn't let us cheat. He wanted our players out there right away. But the group that went out there did a great job. They kept it in there. They had five scoring chances, did a great job, but what are you going to do? You're not going to take it back into your end and regroup to make a change when you've got it in their end the whole time. And that happened to be the only power play.”
But Tarasenko’s interaction with Hitchcock raised eyebrows around the league, especially considering only two top-nine forwards had less ice time than Tarasenko through two-thirds of Saturday’s game. The winger finished with 16:56 of ice time in the loss and the most even-strength minutes amongst all Blues players. But in a crucial game, was it enough?
“I think in that part of the game I think sometimes the top guys want to be out there 60 minutes a game if they could, right,” asked center Paul Stastny.
To add comparison, the Blackhawks’ top player, Patrick Kane, has played over 22 minutes in each of the six games in the series, while Tarasenko has only played past the 20-minute mark in one game, the double overtime loss last Thursday. Kane has 41 more minutes of total ice time in the series, while averaging nearly seven more minutes per game than Tarasenko.
Tarasenko is the Blues’ leading scorer in the series, with four goals, six points. He is averaging one goal every 29 minutes. In his playoff career, the forward has 14 goals in 19 games. Eight of those have come against Chicago. He is a proven playoff performer. But Hitchcock says that the same assets that make Tarasenko successful also limit his ice time.
“He plays a short ice game with short shifts and that impacts his energy,” said Hitchcock. “He's a big body that plays a lot, he gets leaned on and he leans on a lot of people. It's very wearing. The game he plays is a physical game; it's at the puck, it's around the puck, it's one-on-one and it’s very demanding.”
Hitchcock said that Tarasenko is a player who plays better with shorter shifts, therefore impacting his total ice time but giving more opportunities for the forward to strike. However, there are still six Blues forwards who average more shifts than Tarasenko per game.
“When you view a player, knowledgeable hockey people don't look at time, they look at shifts, and shifts matter," Hitchcock said. “He's not going to be a 48 or a 49-second hockey player and be effective. He's a guy that has to play in short bursts and that's what he does. He plays great in shorts bursts so his energy stays high."
Tarasenko took 27 shifts in Game 6 and averaged of 37 seconds per turn. That is about average for an NHL forward.
"That's a lot of shifts and the ice time," Hitchcock said. "If you looked at it and you had 50 seconds (on every shift) instead of 33, well that's a 23-minute player, which is incredible.
"But he's not able to play that way, maybe when he is 28 or 29 (years old) he can play that way. But he's a young guy who plays a big man's game that's physically demanding, especially at this time of the year.”
Hitchcock did push Tarasenko to the limit in the third period, but the Blues were down a goal at that point and couldn’t find a way to battle back.
“I had him 11 or 12 shifts in the third period,” said Hitchcock. “You just can't put a guy out on the ice any more than that. He's a short shift guy so you've just got to live with it."