When the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks have squared off recently, it always seems one Blue is getting in on the action
You all know Vladimir Tarasenko, right, Chicago Blackhawks fans? I know that answer to that question, but in case there’s someone out there who is unfamiliar with the young hockey forward, let’s go over a refresher.
Tarasenko is a 24-year-old Russian winger for the rival St. Louis Blues. He’s the one true playmaker they can boast, and he loves playing against the Blackhawks.
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Tarasenko has a unique blend of speed, ice vision and puck-handling abilities. Seeing Tarasenko must be a bit like what Blues fans see when Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin hit the ice.
Tonight marks the second game of the regular season between Chicago and St. Louis, this one in the Purina City. That means Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, should he stop being as foolish as he was throughout the 2016 playoff series between these teams, will get to ice Tarasenko against the easiest competition he could possibly see.
In the first game between these clubs, a sloppy opening night affair, Tarasenko dented the twine twice. He scored on the powerplay and at even-strength as the Blues rolled to a 5-2 win.
So. How about trying to stop the guy?
Looking at the stats
That’s easy for me to say, of course. I’m watching these games from the comfort of my living room, not lacing up skates to try and keep up with this wildly talented athlete. But before we attack how the Blackhawks can try to slow Tarasenko, let’s really look at what he’s done against the Blackhawks and realize why it is indeed important to slow him.
Tarasenko has played in 16 regular-season games against Chicago during his brief NHL career. The Blackhawks are the only team he’s hit double-digit goals against thus far with 10. His next-highest mark against any individual team is eight, against Dallas and Nashville.
While Tarasenko’s 16 points against the Blackhawks aren’t his most against a single team in his regular-season career (17 against the Predators), we’re still talking about a point-per-game threat.
And then there’s the playoffs. In the 2014 first-round series between these teams, Tarasenko notched four goals across six games. Last season, he potted four goals and two assists across seven games.
So a point per game in the regular season and close to it in the playoffs against Chicago. That’s certainly a threat.
What makes it even wilder from the Blackhawks’ perspective is that there are so few guys on this Blues roster, now and in the past, who you’d really try to push harder to shut down. In fact, there are none and have been none. And yet, Tarasenko continually finds the puck on his stick and in good position to score against the Blackhawks.
You obviously can’t turn down Tarasenko every night for his entire career. The guy is a talented player — one of the top 15 forwards in the league, easy. And that’s where some of his chances come from. It’s like Kane — try as you might to stop these guys, they’ll still find a way, at least occasionally.
But the Blackhawks can still do more. There’s no reason anyone should be tallying a point per game against them for a career that’s lasted more than 10 minutes. Sure, the defense was porous last season, but to let one guy beat you that often is a terrible look.
Obviously, getting last change would be preferred when taking on Tarasenko. If that were the case, I’d send one forward grouping out against him all night long: whatever line is being centered by Marcus Kruger.
Now, if Kruger is for some reason centering Ryan Hartman and Jordin Tootoo, the plan changes. But in most instances, you’re going to want a line that’s known for shutting down strong opposing players to get out against one who has burned you repeatedly.
Tonight, it’s hard to say who Hitchcock will unleash Tarasenko on most often. The fourth line of Andrew Desjardins–Dennis Rasmussen and Tootoo actually has two guys who could pair with Kruger to combat Tarasenko in another situation, but I can’t imagine this line gets much rope tonight.
I would imagine Hitchcock wants to get Tarasenko out against one of Chicago’s top two lines. It’d be easier for Tarasenko’s center mate, Jori Lehtera, to win draws from a weak-at-the-dot Artem Anisimov, but maybe Hitchock wants to send Tarasenko out against Nick Schmaltz and Kane, despite Lehtera having to face Jonathan Toews.
Keys to shutting him down, Part II
Regardless of who gets the matchup with Tarasenko, the first thing I think you have to do is play extremely tight to him. Collapse on him as soon as possible. No, don’t send all three forwards screaming at him. But don’t drop back so quickly to give him more open ice. That’s extremely dangerous.
Same thing goes for the defensemen. Don’t just try to knock down his shots with sticks and shinpads. Go after the guy. While Tarasenko is quick, he doesn’t have quite the moveset of a Kane when it comes to magic escape acts. He’s good, but also able to be corralled. The worst thing you can do is stand still and let him have space to make plays.
At the end of the day, it’ll come down to Corey Crawford stopping shots from Tarasenko. Obviously, the Russian has beaten Crow more than a few times, and that’s been primarily during a really strong run from Crow.
My suggestion to Crow would be to come out and challenge the guy. Force him to make one of his patented plays and hit Jaden Schwartz, Lehtera or a defenseman to finish things off. It’s not like none of those Blues are capable of scoring, but Tarasenko needs to be approached like the threat he is.
The guy has a lethal shot, and while he’s capable of making slick passes to set up opponents, he seems far more willing to shoot the puck when it’s on his stick.
This won’t all work 100 percent of the time, but whatever the Blackhawks have been doing to try to shut down Tarasenko in the past obviously hasn’t worked. Maybe some of these ideas will take shape tonight in St. Louis, and maybe Tarasenko can finally be silenced.