Tarasenko, Barbashev could be next in a long line of Russian Stanley Cup champions

Since the Detroit Red Wings' "Russian Five" won back-to-back Stanley Cup titles in 1997-98, 15 of the NHL's 19 champions have had at least one Russian player. With Vladimir Tarasenko and Ivan Barbashev on the roster, the St. Louis Blues could soon make it 16 of 20.
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ST. LOUIS — Slava Fetisov called Vladimir Tarasenko midway through the second round of the playoffs to deliver an important message.

“I said, ‘Listen, you’ve got a good chance to win this year, so you’re gonna play 100 percent, maybe a little more,'” Fetisov recalled Friday. “‘You get all your talents and your skill and you can win the Cup. And sometimes you think it’s gonna be tomorrow in that opportunity but it’s not.'”

Fetisov would know. He didn’t defect from the Soviet Union until midway through his career, and it took until age 39 for him to lift the Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings in 1997.

More than two decades since Fetisov and the “Russian Five” shattered the myth that NHL teams couldn’t win with players from a nation unpopular in North America, the St. Louis Blues’ Russian Two of Vladimir Tarasenko and Ivan Barbashev is one victory away from lifting the same Cup after being inspired by the generation of countrymen who endured so much to get there.

“They give us reasons to dream about it, and maybe one day we can do the same thing,” Tarasenko said.

How Fetisov, Sergei Fedorov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Slava Kozlov and Igor Larionov reached hockey’s mountaintop is documented in the award-winning film “Russian Five”released Friday. It’s co-produced by player agent Dan Milstein, who represents Barbashev, and tells the story of the first time in NHL history five Russian teammates took the ice at the same time.

Barbashev hasn’t seen the film, but those in hockey know the tale well: Detroit seeing the Soviet Union as a source of untapped talent, putting defensemen Fetisov and Konstantinov and forwards Fedorov, Kozlov and Larionov together as one unit like the old Red Army teams and winning the Cup in 1997 by sweeping the big, tough Philadelphia Flyers that featured the “Legion of Doom” line.

Red Wings teammate and now Vegas coach Gerard Gallant says in the film that observers figured the Russian Five is “gonna have to play the Canadian way. They’re gonna have to toughen up.” They heard plenty of criticism from the old guard, led by Canadian commentator Don Cherry, who wondered, “What is this, ‘Hockey Night in Canada’ or ‘Hockey Night in Russia?'”

The Russian Five adapted to different rules in North America, and Tarasenko and Barbashev are perfect examples of the effects of that hybrid of skill and toughness. Barbashev is a hard-hitting forward — and his check to the head of Boston’s Marcus Johansson actually led to him being suspended for Game 6 against the Boston Bruins on Sunday night — while Tarasenko has rounded out his 200-foot game to become even more difficult to stop.

“You learn you can’t only stand waiting for the puck to come to you and score goals,” Tarasenko said. “You need to do more to help your team win the Cup.”

The Russian Five exemplified that. A car accident ended Konstantinov’s career, leaving four to win the second of back-to-back titles in 1998 and an emotional scene of him getting the Cup on the ice in a wheelchair.

Since then, 15 of the 19 champions have had at least one Russian player, and last year Washington’s Alex Ovechkin became the first Russian captain to win the Cup. Tarasenko is in the final for the first time and said he’s never touched or even looked intentionally at the Stanley Cup, but he knows what winning it means.

“We don’t really have a lot of NHL when we was growing up back home,” Tarsenko said. “But Washington guys won the Cup, too. So any Russian guy win the Cup, they bring it to Russia and see how excited their families or friends and people in their hometowns (are).”

Tarasenko and the Blues might not be here had Fetisov not given him a pep talk with them trailing the Dallas Stars 3-2 during the second round. Fetisov was paying attention to the NHL playoffs for the first time in a while and took it upon himself to reach out to Tarasenko to offer some advice.

“They was down in the series and I call him and we have good conversation: You talk about the game and what the Stanley Cup mean to the players,” Fetisov said. “Since this, he become a different player and I hope that’s gonna help him to win the Cup.”

Tarasenko, 27, doesn’t talk much on the phone this time of year aside from family, but it’s a good thing he made an exception for the Hall of Fame defenseman. After recording no assists in his first 11 playoff games, Tarasenko has six goals and five assists for 11 points in his past 13 since talking to Fetisov.

Coach Craig Berube has noticed and been impressed by Tarasenko’s hard work and competitiveness that often gets overlooked because of his sublime skill.

“He’s a very good skater and he’s using his speed and he’s playing a physical game,” Berube said. “I know he’s scoring goals, but watching him and how he’s developed in the playoffs, in my opinion, throughout this year’s playoffs, his physicality, skating and compete level, all the things, especially without the puck, too. He’s doing a real good job of working extremely hard without the puck.”

The Russian Five together was able to play keep away with the puck. Tarasenko and Barbashev don’t play that style with the Blues, but they fit well into the straightforward, north-south game that has made St. Louis so successful since being last in the NHL in early January.

Yet their success has made countless Russian players aim to win the Stanley Cup.

“I hope they come to the United States and Canada for the biggest prize in professional hockey, for the Stanley Cup,” Fetisov said. “And you see more and more guys fight and try to win the Cup. I’m very happy for them. The teams get more and more reliable on Russian players.”

Barbashev doesn’t want to talk yet about he and Tarasenko joining the list of Russian players with their names on the Cup, though he does draw inspiration from what the Russian Five accomplished 22 years ago.

“Every time you look at those names who played in the NHL, the guys that won the Stanley Cup all together, it’s just amazing,” Barbashev said.