Opposing goaltenders aren’t the only ones afraid when Vladimir Tarasenko has the puck on his stick.
“I get to practice with him every day and every time he gets over the blue line, you know there’s a chance of the puck going in the net,” St. Louis Blues goalie Jake Allen said Saturday after Tarasenko notched his first NHL playoff hat trick with three goals in a 4-1 victory over the Minnesota Wild. “Opposing goalies probably feel the same way, I definitely would if I was playing against him. He can score from anywhere.”
Tarasenko showed exactly that kind of variety Saturday to help the Blues even their best-of-seven series at one game apiece. He now has seven goals in last eight playoff contests.
On the first one, Tarasenko managed to wedge himself between a pair of defenders and got his stick on a shot from just inside the blue line by Alexander Steen.
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Tarasenko got another one with 1:59 remaining in the first period, firing a shot from a bad angle that banked in off of Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk after Dubnyk who appeared to leave the goalpost a bit on the play.
The third came on a long shot from the other side of the center red line that settled into the back of Minnesota’s empty net after the Wild pulled Dubnyk for an extra attacker. As Tarasenko celebrated before being mobbed by his teammates, many fans from the sellout crowd of 19,243 at Scottrade Center began tossing their hats on the ice in tribute to the great performance.
“This is a win,” said Tarasenko, more impressed to even the series than with his three-goal blitz. “There’s no time to celebrate. We have a tough couple games coming. We just win; it doesn’t matter how many goals you have.”
Ironically, Tarasenko was not credited with an official shot in the Game 1 loss though he sent six of them toward the net that were blocked by Wild players. He scored on three of his five shots Saturday.
Tarasenko and center Jori Lehtera have been together much of the season, but the addition of Steen has the chemistry rising to new levels. In the final regular-season game last Saturday against the Wild, the trio combined for three goals and six points.
“(I) played before with Steener together when Jori wasn’t here,” Tarasenko said. “We played at the beginning of the season together too. It wasn’t hard to bring this chemistry back. As long as we score and help the team, this is a good line.”
With the Blues leading 1-0, things were still physical and extremely tight. That’s when Tarasenko caught Dubnyk leaning off the goalpost a bit, wristing a quick shot into the net off the goaltender.
“The second goal was an unbelievable shot,” Steen said. “That’s a big goal for our club.”
Dubnyk knew it was a goal he should not have surrendered.
“That’s just a mistake by me,” he said. “It’s not a good goal. I came off my post on a guy who likes to shoot, who’s got a pretty good shot, and he made me pay for it.”
The Tarasenko-Steen duo nearly netted Tarasenko’s third goal earlier in the game. Tarasenko forced a turnover and got the puck deep, patiently waiting for an opportunity. Steen spied him headed toward the net and only a strong save by Dubnyk denied him.
Steen has watched Tarasenko blossom from a shy Russian rookie transitioning to a new culture to a powerful, confident player who ranked among the top scorers in the league this season with 37 goals and 73 points in 77 games.
In 179 career regular-season games, Tarasenko has 66 goals and 135 points. He also has seven goals and eight points in nine career playoff games.
“He’s grown as he’s been here,” Steen said. “He’s a tremendous sniper. You try to look for him as much as you can. Obviously he’s gonna draw a lot of coverage, but for the most part he finds nice holes and it seems like we read each other pretty well.
“If I see a hole he kind of waits; he waits for the right time to jump into the hole as well. He’s not too anxious, he’s got great patience and obviously his release is the best in the NHL.”
Tarasenko feeds off the crowd’s energy, but it’s nothing compared to the jolt he gives the crowd by scoring the types of highlight-reel goals they have become accustomed to.
“When you see this crowd and everybody is so pumped up for the first game and everybody has big expectations for you especially after last couple years ... we can’t lose first game, we felt bad after,” he said. “We have to play every game like it’s our last game, like it was today.”
Tarasenko is a game-breaker, the rare breed of NHL player that can change things any time he jumps over the boards and hits the ice.
“That’s something we’ve kind of been criticized about before in the last few years is not being able to score enough goals come playoff time,” Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. “Now we have a guy who can do that, we have a line that can do that and our secondary scoring, those other lines have tough match-ups against their top two ... they’re all capable of putting them in.”