Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A humbled attitude, Tarasenko aims to elevate game

Stopping short of settling, Blues right wing aims to be among best, 
continues to work on craft night after scoring first hat trick of career

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- The day after scoring the first NHL hat trick and with an optional skate on the table more times than not would be reason for a player to take advantage of an off day.

Not Vladimir Tarasenko.

If it weren't for Alexander Steen stepping onto the ice Wednesday at the Ice Zone inside St. Louis Outlet Mall for an afternoon practice that didn't yield an entire team following a 4-3 overtime victory in Dallas, Tarasenko would have been first on the ice.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Vladimir Tarasenko (left) celebrates with T.J. Oshie after scoring his third
goal of the game in overtime in a 4-3 victory against the Dallas Stars. 

And instead of going through the motions of a workout that included 12 of his teammates, the 22-year-old Tarasenko -- who became the first Blue to score a hat trick in overtime since Brett Hull did it Oct. 9, 1997 -- was working on what makes his craft of pinpoint accuracy so good.

Of course he was shooting pucks. Wrister after wrister after wrister mixed in with a slapper or snap shot sprinkled in. 

"When he first came over, he was just happy to play here (in the NHL)," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of Tarasenko, who leads the team with nine points in eight games after his first four-point game Tuesday. "Now he wants to be a guy that contributes every night. He wants to be a significant player in the league. It's a big difference. 

"He wasn't really happy when he came back from the (Sochi) Olympics. He was really unhappy with how much he played (for Russia), what role he played, and he really put a strong focus into really becoming a real good player. I think quite frankly, if he doesn't get hurt post-Olympics, I think he's got 35 (goals) in him last year alone. I think he's a 35-goal guy last year if he doesn't get hurt. He just had a whole different focus. He was very determined in his game. He came back and did that in the playoffs. He's been able to move that forward when he's healthy. He's been sick twice now (this season). He's been under the weather twice now since the tail end of training camp. Health-wise, this is the best he's felt."

For a guy that didn't even know hours before the game whether he'd play or not Tuesday because he'd been suffering from symptoms of a bacterial infection that's gone around on the team, Tarasenko, who played at roughly 50 percent healthy against Chicago on Saturday, shook off what ailed him in grand style.

But instead of gloating about how good the previous night was, Tarasenko was already focused Wednesday on how he can be better the next time the puck drops. It's a humbling attitude, and it's easy to notice that there is no "I" or "me" in Tarasenko's vocabulary. That's typically reserved for "team" or "we" or "us."

"It's kind of hard, but I like it when people set high expectations for me," Tarasenko said. "I'm supposed to work twice as hard everywhere. You can't make these people sad. It's good pressure.

"It was a good game (Tuesday). I didn't score for five or six games. I feel a little bit better right now. Probably more confident. Ready to go tomorrow."

Tarasenko's teammates have no problem gloating for him, especially when he's doing things not always talked about  on top of his goal-scoring prowess.

"It's special, but we see it every day," said center Maxim Lapierre, who compared Tarasenko's shot to former Montreal Canadiens teammate Andrei Kostitsyn. "He's got such a good shot. Probably the best shot I've seen in my life. If he keeps playing like that, he's going to get a lot of goals. ... It's one thing to have a hard shot, but he puts it anywhere he wants. It's easy for him to score goals, let's put it that way.

"We see the three goals, but guys like me see the shot he blocked with 16 seconds or whatever last night in the game. Every guy that scores three goals doesn't throw his face in front of a puck." 

After the game, usually on the bus to the airport or on the plane prior to takeoff to the next destination, Tarasenko does what he normally does after he plays a game: he telephones his father Andrei and grandfather Vladimir, who the younger Tarasenko is named after.

It's become a routine occurrence.

"I talk to them all the time," Tarasenko said. "My grandfather watches all my games. We talk after every game."

And what do they say? 

"Same what I tell you ... it's only one night," Tarasenko said. "We're happy for you, but try to stay on the same level."

Which is why "tomorrow" is always the next obstacle to tackle for Tarasenko.

But on Tuesday, Tarasenko, as Hitchcock described it, scored goals three different ways. All were shots with tremendous accuracy and in ways that can't be taught. They were instinctive and they come from repetitive actions.

"I know he's a great player, that's why I want to pass him the puck every time I get it," said teammate Jori Lehtera, who was a linemate of Tarasenko's with Sibir Novosibirsk in the Kontinental Hockey League. "It's simple.

"He can pass, shoot, challenge 1 on 1's at the same time. You don't know what he's going to do. The defenseman doesn't know."

On Tuesday, Tarasenko had the eye of a player thinking with a shoot-first mentality. He would get it and he would release it. It's something the coaching staff has tried to instill in Tarasenko in the past, as Hitchcock has said before that Tarasenko tends to "defer" shooting pucks.

Don't tell the Yaroslavl, Russia native that though.

"No, I never think like this," Tarasenko said. "I always look around for somebody else in a better position to make a play. I don't care about my shots. If somebody else is open, I will make the pass."

The game Tuesday  was very reminiscent of Tarasenko's four goals in the playoffs against the Blackhawks last season. Hitchcock agreed.

"I thought yesterday was the same as what we saw in the playoffs," Hitchcock said. "He was really engaged (Tuesday). He played strong, he played tough on the puck. That's what we expect. 

"He's been under the weather for three or four days like the rest of the guys. That's why you see such a variance in energy on some guys. We've gone through it. We're still in the process of cleaning it up. But I think his energy was higher. He felt better physically and showed it in his performance, to be honest with you."

And the chemistry of working with Lehtera is unmistakable, even though Tarasenko has been used with Paul Stastny at times.

"The Stastny combination with Tarasenko was good," Hitchcock said. "We're not opposed to that at all. It was really good, too. In a lot of ways to be honest with you, Lehtera and Stastny are very similar players, very similar. They're similar in the way they approach the game, they're similar in the way they see the game, they're similar in what their strengths are. They're very similar players. Vladi and Lehtera work well together, but as time moves on, we're not opposed to playing Stastny with Vladi either.

"I think where you see it is Lehtera knows where Tarasenko is at the end of shifts. Tarasenko's second goal was scored with Lehtera on the bench. But he knows where he is at the end of shifts. That comes from playing a lot together. You don't get that chemistry without playing well together. That to me is a telltale sign that, hey, these guys know. That's significant for us. It's similar to (Ryan) Getzlaf-(Corey) Perry or (Jamie) Benn-(Tyler) Seguin."

Tarasenko, who scored from distance on two of his three goals, has been compared to having a Hull-like shot, along with a few other's Hitchcock knows well.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Building chemistry with Jori Lehtera (12) in the KHL has helped Vladimir
Tarasenko (91) elevate game so far in 2014-15.

"(Mark) Recchi used to shoot like that. Wouldn't give it away, kept the blade square," Hitchcock said. "Glenn Anderson did it. That's the way Andy was, too. He had that ability, too. But when you're face-to-face ... how many players in the league can score from distance? Not very many. Seguin, he can. He can score from distance. Not many people have players that can score from outside of 15 feet ... (Steven) Stamkos. A lot of the stuff, I would say Glenn Anderson. Andy could get a little bit of 1-on-1 space and all of the sudden, boom! Here comes the shot. You don't know if it's heavy or if it's quick or what it is. Is it both? I don't know."

Which is why Tarasenko is working on his craft day after day. He wants to be among the best the game has.

"It's not enough to play one good game and play five bad ones after it," Tarasenko said. "It's really tough sometimes to stay focused. When you can do this, you can play a lot of really good games. You can relax after three goals. I need to (keep) working."

But when asked what was the most pressure he faced, the game Tuesday or the postgame interview with Fox Sports Midwest's Darren Pang, Tarasenko had a clever comeback.

"Most pressure was turbulence in the plane," Tarasenko joked, referring to the trip back to St. Louis following the game. "That was most pressure for me last night."

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