BOSTON – There is a Russian superstar in this Stanley Cup Final striving to do exactly what the last one did.
Work harder. Discover new elements within his own game. Round out his reputation. Lift a trophy.
Sniper Vladimir Tarasenko paid close attention as his countryman, the old-and-improved Alex Ovechkin, blocked shots like a third-pair defenceman and backchecked like a fourth-line call-up last June in order to finally, drunkenly and magnificently realize his dream.
"The biggest thing you learn is that you can’t always stand waiting for a puck to come to you to score goals," Tarasenko said following Wednesday’s practice.
"You need to do more to help a team win a Cup. That’s the biggest lesson, and it was a great example by Ovie last year, so that was pretty impressive."
Tarasenko, 27, doesn’t speak often to Ovechkin, but keeps in touch regularly with Washington Capitals defenceman Dmitry Orlov. The two 27-year-olds dominated the KHL at the same time, earning trips stateside.
But even Orlov’s calls have been put on ignore of late. Until the season wraps, Tarasenko is only picking up for family.
"I try to put the phone talk away a little bit," he said
Yes, Tarasenko is so focused on the task at hand — win Game 5 on Thursday — that he’s limiting distractions outside of the St Louis Blues’ room.
Viacheslav Fetisov, the back-to-back Cup winner who was integral to breaking the barrier for Russians like Tarasenko to even play on this continent, did get in his ear during the Blues’ Round 2 victory over the Dallas Stars.
"He wished me good luck and everything. That was pretty good," Tarasenko said. Fetisov also offered a bit of advice, but Tarasenko politely prefers to keep the details of those conversations private.
Same with the numerous chats he has with Blues consultant and nine-time Cup winner Larry Robinson, a quiet championship presence casting his shadow over this mostly ring-free roster.
"We talk about everything: what bothers you, what not bothers you. He helps the team a lot," Tarasenko explained. "He’s a huge legend in the league. It’s an honour for us to be in the same locker-room and have a chance to speak with him every day and share this moment with him."
It’s not unreasonable to envision this moment culminating with another Russian known for possessing one of the world’s most dangerous shots hoisting the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Jordan Binnington has been fine in the final, but he was pulled in Game 3 and was hardly the first star in the Blues’ wins. A case could surely be made for Ryan O’Reilly or Alex Pietrangelo, but team points leader Jaden Schwartz is still looking for his first goal of the series.
Tarasenko slammed home his 11th goal of the post-season in Game 4 when he hopped on a juicy rebound from a long-range Pietrangelo shot. (Yes, the captain is purposely shooting for rebounds. "Maybe Colton [Parayko] can score from that far out. I can’t," Pietrangelo smiled.)
Uncharacteristically quiet through the first two rounds since Fetisov wished him luck, Tarasenko now has points in nine of 10 games. His three goals in the Final is one shy of tying the NHL record for most in the championship series by a Russian-born player (Alex Kovalev scored four in 1994).
"One of the best wrist shots in the NHL," said centreman Brayden Schenn. "He’s able to find the open areas to score goals, and whether it’s my job or Schwartzy’s job, we’ve got to do a better job of helping him and finding him, getting him the puck to put it in the back of the net."
O’Reilly has deserved all the glowing headlines he’s received this week, seeing as how the Selke Trophy finalist nearly willed the Stanley Cup Final to six games (minimum) with his herculean effort Monday.
But Tarasenko’s two-way game, much like Ovechkin’s in 2018, has been a post-season revelation.
"He’s become a more well-rounded player. His work ethic without the puck, skating, checking, being physical — and guys feed off that. They look at how hard he’s working out there and how physical he plays without the puck and the little things and that inspires our team," said coach Craig Berube.
"He’s just working. It’s all hard work and compete."
While the B’s have had their way on the man advantage, the Blues’ top line of has outscored Boston’s Big 3 by a 3-0 margin head to head during 5-on-5 play, dominating possession as well.
In Game 4, Berube dealt Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak a steady diet of his Oskar Sundqvist–led fourth unit to free up his own top six. On Thursday, Tarasenko & Co. will punch the clock again and look to pummel Boston’s depleted D corps with the league’s most effective forecheck.
Hit bodies. Create turnovers. Generate rebounds. And let the shooter shoot.
"There’s sometimes no room for fancy plays," said Tarasenko, buying in all the way. "We just need to always stay connected, like stay closer to each other and keep working hard. If you look on our chances, it’s all come off of hard work or forecheck, or something like this.
"We know where we are on the ice, which makes the game really easy for us.
"So, it’s pretty exciting time right now."