ST. LOUIS — Despite missing the final 15 regular-season games with a hand injury, St. Louis Blues winger Vladimir Tarasenko was one of the best players on the ice Thursday in Game 1 of their NHL Western Conference first-round playoff series against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Tarasenko wasted little time making an impact, blocking a shot on his first shift and then scoring his first playoff goal later in the opening period.
He nearly scored a second one during the second period, but a sprawling save by Chicago goalie Corey Crawford turned that chance away.
Tarasenko was tied for the Blues' lead with seven shots.
Forwards T.J. Oshie and Patrik Berglund were ruled out for Game 1 by St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, while forwards David Backes, Tarasenko and Brenden Morrow were given the green light to resume active duty.
Backes centered a line with Alexander Steen and Steve Ott, while Tarasenko was on right wing on a line with left winger Jaden Schwartz and center Vladimir Sobotka.
Morrow was at left wing on the third line with Derek Roy and Ryan Reaves.
Backes and Morrow made the transition from walking boot braces on their feet a few days ago to playing in Game 1, but Tarasenko's journey was a little more involved.
Out for 15 games since March 15 with a significant right hand injury that required surgery, Tarasenko was back in the lineup two weeks ahead of schedule. The team originally announced he would be re-evaluated after six weeks.
"If he doesn't put all the extra work in that he's' done off-ice, on-ice, everywhere, then I don't think we would have been able to play him," Hitchcock said Thursday morning. "There's been some really tough days for him where we've pushed him through the wall on some stuff.
"But all of this was (done) with a chance to play in the playoffs. Originally it was a no-go for the first round and now we're seeing a guy play in Game 1, which is really significant."
Besides being one of the team's top scoring threats with 21 goals and 43 points in 64 games, Tarasenko also makes the power play more dangerous.
Since he had a hand injury, Tarasenko never fell behind in his conditioning and in fact may be in better shape than he was previously.
"There's no limitations," Hitchcock said. "He deserves an awful lot of credit. He did the double-extra duty to be in physical condition to be ready to play. This is going to be a significant challenge for him -- first because he's never played in a playoff game very much and secondly, he's missed a lot of time."
Hitchcock said Tarasenko and the team's training staff both deserve a lot of credit.
"He has worked extra hard to be in the best shape of his life right now, which is going to allow him to keep up at this time of the year," Hitchcock said. "You're talking six, seven hours a day at the rink, 2 or 2 1/2 hours a day on the ice, mostly by himself. He's had two practices with somebody and now he's going to play in a playoff game."
Oshie (upper body injury) practiced with the team Tuesday during an optional workout, but was not on the ice for practice Wednesday. He was on the ice Thursday for the morning skate at Scottrade Center and could be used later in the series.
He was injured April 10 on a hit to the head by Minnesota's Mike Rupp that led to a four-game suspension for Rupp.
Both teams have loud buildings and raucous fans, so it was no surprise the Scottrade Center energy level was incredible at the start of Game 1.
"They're a different team in this building than they are on the road," Chicago star Patrick Kane said of the Blues. "They feed off the energy of the fans. We don't want to sit back and watch and wait to see what they're going to do and how physical they're going to play.
"I don't think anyone's really intimidated or worried in this room. I think we're all looking forward to playing our style of hockey and trying to bring it to them."
Goalie of the future?
Blues prospect Jake Allen was named the American Hockey League's outstanding goaltender for 2013-14, receiving the Aldedge "Baz" Bastien Memorial Award in voting by coaches, players and media.
The Blues' second-round pick in 2008, Allen leads the AHL in wins (32), goals-against average (2.07) and save percentage (.927) and is tied for the league lead with six shutouts.
His overall record with the AHL's Chicago Wolves is 32-16-3 in 51 games. Allen was the Blues' second-round pick (34th overall) in 2008, earning a spot on the NHL's All-Rookie team last season by going 9-4 with a 2.46 goals-against average with the Blues.
Allen also was named an AHL first-team All-Star.