Vladimir Tarasenko stepped onto center stage Monday on an ice rink in the middle of Busch Stadium and showed the hockey world what St. Louis Blues fans have known for a long time.
He’s a special player — indoors or out.
Tarasenko scored two goals to break a 1-1 tie during a span of 1 minute, 53 seconds in the third period, and the Blues thrilled a sellout crowd of 46,556 with a 4-1 NHL Winter Classic victory over the Chicago Blackhawks.
“He’s a hungry offensive player,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of Tarasenko, who has 14 goals and 20 points in his last 19 games against the Blackhawks counting playoffs. “He sniffs out weaknesses, he sniffs our coverage issues and he jumps on them. When he’s engaged like he was today and like he’s been for the most part of this year, he’s dangerous because he’s one shift away from breaking the thing wide open.”
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The NHL got its wish by averting any kind of weather that would have caused a delay, and it was 46.7 degrees when the puck dropped. Blues players and the organization finally got their wish to finally participate in one of the league’s marquee events, and Blues fans were more than happy with the final outcome.
“That was one of the coolest things I think we’ve done, or I’ve done,” said Blues forward Alexander Steen, whose empty-net goal with 1:14 remaining iced the win for the Blues (20-13-5, 45 points). “That was awesome.”
So was hearing a packed house at Busch Stadium fire up the traditional “Let’s Go Blues” chant.
“I think that’s the largest amount of people saying it and the loudest it’s ever been,” Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said.
Tarasenko, who has 18 goals and and 41 points in 38 games, could have had four goals in the third period.
He was turned away on a breakaway by goaltender Corey Crawford and hit a goalpost during a power play before scoring the Blues’ next two goals.
His first goal was a bit of a fluke as the Russian winger threw a backhand pass toward Jori Lehtera and the puck went in off the skate of Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson.
“It wasn’t on purpose,” Tarasneko said. “The second one, my line just created a good chance for me, and it’s (a) really important win for us and I’m excited about my goals.”
There was no mistake on the second as Tarasenko rifled a sizzling wrist shot past Crawford to push the Blues lead to 3-1.
“It’s no secret,” said Crawford, who stopped 31 of 34 shots. “He’s got probably one of the best wristers in the league ... when he’s out there, everyone knows what he can do.”
Just 62 seconds into the game, a shot from the left point by defenseman Michal Kempny skipped off the ice and just over the wrist of Blues goaltender Jake Allen to put the Blackhawks (23-12-5) on top 1-0.
It seemed like a time of potential panic for a Blues team playing its first Winter Classic against an experienced Blackhawks squad with five outdoor games under its belt since 2009.
Instead, the Blues regained their focus, played better and won over the sellout crowd the rest of the day.
“That (goal) came early enough — and that kind of hit us right over the side of the head,” Shattenkirk said. “It was, in a way, a good thing for us to snap out of it. A lot of us were looking around and trying to take it all in, but we really buckled down after that point and played hockey.”
Blues center Patrik Berglund provided the only goal in the second period, beating Crawford on a one-timer in front after a pass from behind the net by defenseman Jay Bouwmeester.
Steen also picked up an assist on the play, the 300th of the career that also allowed him to hit the 500-point mark. Steen later added an empty-netter.
Crawford came up huge 2 minutes, 50 seconds into the third period when Tarasenko broke in alone. Tarasenko tried to go stick side and Crawford got a piece of it to avert danger.
“He usually doesn’t miss on those breakaways and I thought for sure that was going to be the one,” Hitchcock said, “but he was very hungry and very hard on the puck. Those type of players. they don’t come around very often.
“He’s got the gift of knowing where the goalie’s not and plays all the angles.”
Speaking of covering all the angles, the Blues and Cardinals put on a spectacular show for a national TV audience and a sold-out crowd.
Not even the slower ice conditions because of the rain bothered anyone.
“It’s kind of our ice,” Hitchcock said. “A little muddy, a little sandy, a little pebbly. Perfect. No, it was way better than anybody thought and I think the ice felt heavy, so the shifts were short. You were looking at 25, 30 second shifts.
“That fits us, too. We kept our energy up, changed great all game, and we used four lines right almost to the end — which was a real good sign for us.”