CHICAGO — The hand injury that caused Vladimir Tarasenko to miss the final 15 games of the regular season hasn’t slowed him down one bit in his first extended opportunity in the NHL playoffs.
The Blues’ winger got a glimpse of the postseason as a rookie a year ago when he played just five minutes, 51 seconds in Game 4 of the Western Conference first-round series against the Los Angeles Kings.
Now, the Russian will go into Game 4 of the Blues’ first-round series against the Blackhawks as an impact player; blossoming on the big stage of the NHL playoffs as well as a pivotal piece of St. Louis’ present and future.
"He’s such a smart player," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "(He’s) 22 years old. You imagine what he’s going to be like as a 25- or 26-year-old. He’s such a smart player; he’s got composure where most people just panic like crazy."
Tarasenko proved that in the final seconds of Game 2.
With the Blues trailing 3-2 and emotions running high after captain David Backes left the game after the dirty hit by Brent Seabrook, Tarasenko calmly ringed a wrister off the right post from beyond the right circle for a game-tying power-play goal with 6.4 seconds remaining.
The goal sent the game into overtime and Barret Jackman’s game-winner gave the Blues a two-games-to-none lead in the best-of-seven series. Now, after the Blackhawks took Game 3 with a 2-0 win, the Russian Olympian’s late-game heroics loom even larger as the difference so far.
"They felt like we got away with one in Game 2 and they got away with one in Game 3, so 2-1 for either team is probably where the series should be at," Hitchcock said on Tuesday. "They said it best today when they felt like (Corey) Crawford was the difference for them and a timely goal or two was the difference for us in Game 2. It is what it is, but it’s who’s going to move forward from here? Because we still have home ice advantage, which we’re going to obviously need, but we’ve got to take advantage of it by playing better. And (playing) better in a few elements of our game will give us a better chance to win the hockey game because I thought we had them had them pushed pretty hard yesterday early and late, but not in the middle where we needed to build some more momentum."
The Blues will be counting on contributions from their young Russian, who had a personal four-game goal streak snapped with the Game 3 shutout.
Of course, the first two of those tallies came before suffering a broken bone in his hand March 15. The next two came in Games 1 and 2 of this series, when he announced his presence with authority. Yes, NHL, Vova’s back and arguably better than ever.
"(He) looks like the same player," Hitchcock said following the team’s morning skate. "He probably would have been a 35-goal scorer if he would have finished the year healthy, but he’s right where he was when he left. He’s right up to speed. … I said this before at the start of the playoffs, he did a great job in getting himself getting ready to play. His fitness level, he was on the ice for long, long days and long, long hours. He did a great job in getting himself fit to play."
When he declared Tarasenko fit to play last week, Hitchcock said the forward’s rehab work included six to seven hours a day at the rink, including two to two and a half hours on the ice, mostly by himself, trying to do everything he could to push himself to be ready for his return.
"He did a lot of hard work when he was hurt and kept his legs in shape and that’s probably why he’s been able to play at the level he is right now," Jaden Schwartz said. "We definitely missed him when he was out and it’s nice to see him back so early."
Initially feared out for six weeks, Tarasenko returned in a month.
And he returned looking like the same player as when he left. In 64 regular season games, he racked up 43 points (21 goals, 22 assists) and a plus-minus rating of plus-20 that tied for third-best on the club.
The Blues are now 46-14-7 with Tarasenko this season, including playoffs.
"He’s been playing great," Alexander Steen said before Game 3. "He’s been hungry. I know he’s been waiting, dying, to get back into the lineup. And now that he’s in, he’s showing how hungry he is. He’s played great. … He’s played a couple incredible games and our focus is to try to keep him playing the way he is."
The Blues will go into Game 4 with the return of Backes still uncertain and with the Blackhawks gaining confidence as a result of their Game 3 victory, giving Tarasenko another opportunity to step up on the big stage and show the rest of the hockey world what he’s made of.
You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at email@example.com