Vladimir Tarasenko was the St. Louis Blues‘ leading scorer in the regular season, posting 40 goals and 74 points in 80 games to run away with the title. And he’s been pretty darned good in the playoffs too, tying David Backes and Robby Fabbri for the team lead with 13 points in 17 games.
But he’s been completely shutout in the Western Conference final. And that’s been a huge problem for the Blues.
“The thing that could help him, we can’t give him, which is more experience,” said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock after Game 3. “He’s learning hard lessons, like any young player. Robby’s (Fabbri) learning it. (Colton) Parayko is learning it. Vladi is learning some really hard lessons.
“The playoffs are for veteran players. The veteran players on both teams have this thing dialed up. They know they’re not giving much room to us. We gave up, what, 14 shots today. As you experience this as a younger player, you’re going to have to learn to fight through a lot if you expect to score. We would like him to learn that lesson a day from now, but we’re not sure on the timeframe.”
Now, nobody is really scoring for the Blues, who have been shutout twice now in the West Final after getting two goals in Game 1. Tarasenko, for his part, has 10 shots on goal in three games against the Sharks, but has been held off the board.
The reason this is so troublesome for the Blues — and why you can’t simply expect one of the vets to fill the void — is because Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz, and now even Fabbri, are the difference between this Blues team and the ones that fell short before. Their production on offence has lifted St. Louis from a middle-of-the-pack scoring team into one of the top scoring squads in the NHL. Because of Schwartz’s injury this year and the goals missed without him, the Blues fell back to the middle in 2015-16.
But as long as these players are in the lineup, they are crucial to St. Louis’ offence. If they go quiet now, it’s not simply a mater of someone else picking up the slack.
When the Washington Capitals were eliminated, a big reason they fell short was because the offence from youngsters Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky completely dried up. Kuznetsov’s absence from the box score especially hurt.
“He’s a young player that’s growing,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said about Kuznetsov after his team was eliminated. “The way he emerged through the regular season, you expect that. Probably there’s a lot that he learned through that series that probably going forward will make him a really elite player and we won’t be ever talking about this, him not having production in the playoffs. I mean, there’s certain things you have to go through and learning curves, and this series may be a learning curve.
“You think about it, he had a really good season, the first time really through it where he was a prime guy. Did he run out of gas? We’re asking all of those questions.”
And this is the first serious Blues run where Tarasenko is ‘The Guy.’ He got a short taste of it last season — as Kuznetsov did — but the experience lasted only seven games.
There’s no telling if Tarasenko will bust out of this and start scoring for the Blues again. But you figure that if the Blues do come back to win this series, they’ll need Tarasenko to take a leading role on offence.
“Some guys never learn it. Some guys can’t do it,” Hitchcock said. “Some guys learn that lesson and they really become accomplished players, especially scoring players. But he’s going to have to fight through everything if he expects to score a goal and contribute offensively. There’s some days that he’s going to end up being an effective player and not even get a point, but he’s going to have to have an understanding of what it takes to play at this time of year, in the conference final, with 100 per cent commitment on the other side, still be an effective player.
“These are lessons you can talk to him about. Unfortunately for all of us, you got to go through it.”