Vladimir Tarasenko’s ice time the focus of Game 7

In what has likely been the most exciting and intense playoff series so far this year, the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues will now cap it off with a Game 7 winner take all.

The St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks will play in the crown jewel of the NHL playoffs Monday when the puck drops on a Game 7 — and the Blues have a lot to be nervous about.

They held a 3-1 series lead, now gone, as well as a 3-1 lead in Game 6, which they blew. The side plot to the game was the outburst on the bench from Vladimir Tarasenko to his coach Ken Hitchock and the ensuing discussion about the sniper’s deployment and ice time.

Andy Strickland, rinkside reporter for the Blues, spoke on the Marek vs. Wyshynski podcast Monday about Game 7, Ken Hitchcock’s future and what Tarasenko is capable of on the biggest stage.

“There’s excitement for this game but also nervousness for how it might play out,” said Strickland.

“Ken Hitchcock understands how good Tarasenko is. In a one-game situation, he’s the one player for the Blues offensively who can truly carry the team and advance them beyond the First round. You’re gonna have to rely on this guy considering how dangerous he is. You don’t have anybody else on the team who can duplicate what he does in so many different situations.”

Tarasenko appeared to lash out at Hitchcock on the bench at the end of the second period in Game 6. It was speculated by some, including Blues beat reporter Jeremy Rutherford, that the spat was over ice time, perhaps specifically on the power play.

“Hitchcock has tried to shift the conversation to how many shifts [Tarasenko’s] had during the game, the length of shifts — the Blues typically take short shifts,” said Strickland. “But the number of shifts in a game can be very misleading, especially in a hard matchup situation like we’ve seen this series. Is it a shift when you’re out there for seven seconds? Tarasenko’s gotta play more than 16 minutes a game.

“He can consistently beat NHL goaltenders with a wrist shot,” Strickland continued. “Very few guys in the world have that ability. On the other side, you look at [Patrick Kane] and [Jonathan Toews] who have been doing this over the course of their careers. That’s why they’re considered elite players in this game is because of their ability to raise their game to another level on the biggest stage. There is no bigger stage than a Game 7 when it’s on the players [to win the game].

Tarasenko scored a goal and played under 17 minutes in Game 6. His goal, as Strickland noted, blew right by Corey Crawford.

Whether the Blues can avoid the distraction of a potential rift between coach and player may determine their performance Monday night. Jeff Marek wondered aloud about which party will assert their influence.

“No one’s ever looked at a Game 7 and said, ‘Wow, what a great coaching job,'” said Marek. “Whenever you watch a Game 7, [you look for] the player that said, ‘Screw this, boys, get on my back. We’re not gonna lose this.’ If Tarasenko wants it, like John Tavares last night, St. Louis is gonna advance.”

The interview also touched on Hitchcock’s immediate future as the coach of the Blues. His contract is up at the end of this season.

“I think this is the best job he’s done over the course of the regular season since he came to St. Louis when you consider all the injuries they had, how difficult their division is and how he had them, up until the end of the regular season, competing for [the division lead],” said Strickland. “We all know he was gonna be judged, even prior to the season, based on how he and the team performed in the playoffs.

“At the end of this season, Hitchcock will be a free agent and he’ll have the ability to decide what he wants to do whether it’s coaching or something else. I wouldn’t be shocked if another team dialed him up if he doesn’t return to St. Louis.”

What will happen if the Blues, who lost in the First round of the playoffs last season to the Minnesota Wild, collapse in a potentially crucial moment for the franchise?

“Does that mean you need to overreact [when one of these teams lose]?” asked Strickland. “Do you have to blow it all up? I think you have to be real careful there. This is such a mental hurdle for them to get past the First round.

“If they can do that, who knows how far they can go?”

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