Vladimir Tarasenko usually takes it easy on Brian Elliott in practice.
“His first shot is always a floater into my glove and he taps me on the pads afterward,” the St. Louis Blues goalie said Wednesday. “I think he saves his stuff for the opposing goalies.”
The Blues’ forward has outplayed the Chicago Blackhawks’ offensive stars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, helping pave the way to a 3-1 series advantage over the defending Stanley Cup champions heading into a potential clinching situation in Game 5 Thursday night in St. Louis.
He has three goals and two assists in the series, two of the scores plus an assist coming in Game 4 in Chicago on Tuesday for his second career three-point playoff game.
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And he just missed getting a fourth goal by the width of a skate blade that would have been the go-ahead goal in Chicago’s win in Game 2.
“He’s got a great shot, quick release,” Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith said. “He doesn’t need much time or space. He’s a guy we’ve got to be aware of.”
Together, Kane and Toews have combined for six assists – but zero goals.
The 24-year-old Tarasenko had a career-best 40 goals in the regular season and just like last spring when he scored six goals in a first-round loss to the Wild, there’s been no letup in the playoffs.
“When the stage seems to be the biggest, when the lights seem to be the brightest, he seems to play his best,” captain David Backes said. “You love having guys like that on your team.”
It was especially nice for the team to see that kind of production on the road. The Blues seized control of the series by taking two straight in Chicago.
“It feels good, especially in this building, but we know they’ve come back from this situation a lot of times,” Tarasenko said. “We need to forget about this game and try to prepare for next one.”
Tarasenko is by far the Blues’ biggest offensive threat with 74 points in the regular season – 22 more than second-leading scorer Alexander Steen, who missed 15 games due to injury. The No. 2 goal scorer was Backes with 21.
Tarasenko is developing into a better two-way player, too, not just circling for shots.
“He’s such a competitive guy that’s not surprising that in big games during the regular season and big games in the playoffs he’s a good player,” coach Ken Hitchcock said. “It’s not surprising to us at all.”
The Blues aim to keep springing Tarasenko free for his fast wrist shot while keeping closer tabs on the Blackhawks’ standouts. Hitchcock wasn’t pleased that Kane got loose a couple of times when the result could have gone the other way.
“The game’s on the line yesterday, they’ve got a one-goal lead and there’s Kane on two breakaways,” Hitchcock said. “That’s the fine line this series is at. He scores, the game completely changes.”
So going forward, they know there can be no let-up.
“The faster we can end this series, if it’s tomorrow night, good on us because we really don’t want to be playing against the defending Stanley Cup champions too often,” defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said.
Most of the Blues’ core, including Tarasenko, has been around to learn painful lessons from three straight first-round eliminations. They had a 2-0 series lead in 2014 against the Blackhawks and Kings in 2013 only to lose four straight both times.
“We’re not looking to ease into winning a series or think that anything is going to get easier,” Backes said. “It’s only going to get harder.
NOTES: Hitchcock said D Carl Gunnarsson, who missed Game 4 with an upper-body injury, remained day to day. Robert Bortuzzo would again be the likely replacement. … Including the regular season, Elliott has a nine-game winning streak on the road with a 1.55 goals-against average, 949 save percentage and three shutouts.