Sunday, March 7, 2021

Tarasenko makes triumphant return in overtime loss to Kings

Blues' top goal scorer played in first regular-season game in nearly 17 
months after third surgery on left shoulder; played 16:25 in return to lineup

As months turned to weeks, and weeks turned to days, and the days eventually turned to hours, Vladimir Tarasenko was going to make no bones about it.

"I'm not going to lie. I was nervous until the game starts, yesterday especially," Tarasenko said of his return on Saturday against the Los Angeles Kings from left shoulder surgery.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Vladimir Tarasenko (center) takes a shot against the New York Islanders
early last season. Tarasenko returned to the Blues lineup on Saturday.

Tarasenko returned to action, his first regular season game since Oct. 24, 2019, coincidentally against these Kings, at Staples Center in a 4-3 overtime loss to LA, a game in which the Blues (14-8-3) coughed up a 3-0 first-period lead.

As disappointing as it was for the Blues, who had their four-winning streak end, lose a game in which they led by three in the first, this was all about getting one of their top weapons back into the lineup.


It was a shot in the arm for a team that has been crippled by injury after injury this season, with as many as eight players missing from the lineup at one point.

When Tarasenko injured the shoulder for the second time against the Kings, he had surgery three days later and the expected reevaluation date was five months, a long and arduous road in itself.

He did make a return for the Blues inside the bubble in Edmonton during the Stanley Cup Playoffs and played in four games, but it was evident he wasn't right and the initial surgery wasn't a success.

So Tarasenko, who had played in a total of 14 games before Saturday since the start of the 2019-20 season, had to go through that all over again. Another surgery, a third one, five more months of rehab and then reevaluation again, all in order to play hockey again, and he did that.

Did it feel like that NHL debut Jan. 19, 2013 in which Tarasenko scored twice against the Detroit Red Wings? Probably not, but it had to be close. 

"It's been a long break," Tarasenko said. "To feel this atmosphere again, feel the locker room, being with the guys especially. I'll see how the shoulder feels after everything. We have a lot of things done during my rehab time. We have some contact and I have no concerns. Yeah, I was nervous, but after the first shift, everything was well, like it go away."

Tarasenko finished with 16:25 ice time, was a minus-2 with four shots on goal, five total attempts with one hit and two takeaways according to the league stats.

"I feel nice," Tarasenko said, "... but we don't have a win. It's always bad when you come back from a long time and you lose, but there was some time to rethink everything in this life. It's a privilege to be in the locker room and to be able to play. I miss that. Nice to be out there with the guys again, feel that atmosphere, feel the game. It's a pretty exciting day for me. Only bad thing we don't win."

Tarasenko skated on a line with Ryan O'Reilly and Jordan Kyrou and had some good looks, including one in overtime right before Adrian Kempe ended it for the Kings.

"I thought he looked really good early on," Blues coach Craig Berube said. "I thought he kept his shifts short, did some good stuff. I thought he was going to score there in overtime, did a good job driving wide. Yeah, I thought he looked good. He skated well, he was strong, he was physical, did a lot of good things, so a real good sign."

Added center Brayden Schenn: "He was (engaged). (Drew) Doughty played him hard tonight and he took a couple runs at him. He was good on the wall, had some chances, obviously a good chance in OT. That's a good start for him obviously after the time he's had off and we know he's only going to get better."

Tarasenko did have a great chance to cap a memorable night in OT but just couldn't quite grasp the puck firmly onto his stick after making a move wide, and moments later, the Kings won.

"I drive the net and get the guy to wait for one more second and try to shoot it high, but I think (the puck) bounced over my stick while I'm shooting. I need to watch it again. It was a pretty fast play by what I feel. It bounce over my stick ... I have to score that one."

The fact Tarasenko is even talking about hockey has to feel great for him. And this was the target date all along for him to return if everything went according to play with the doctors and team personnel after a third having surgery -- Tarasenko first injured the shoulder on the last day of the 2017-18 regular season -- on Sept. 17.

"I like when things are set," Tarasenko said. "We set a date before and we just follow up with this date step by step, we have a plan in mind. That was the date from the beginning. As soon as I have contact and test my shoulder and everything feel fine, we set a date for this road trip and I was just preparing for this game."

And doing all the little things like lacing up the slakes, wrapping the tape up, pulling over the jersey, hanging with the guys in the locker room, all the little things that he had missed for most of the past 17 months had to be gratifying.

"There's a lot of things people can complain about but during this corona time and my rehab, the most important thing is hopefully to be able to play and if your whole family is healthy and you're able to play, it's (a) privilege," Tarasenko said. "It's privilege to be in the locker room. Guys support me a lot this time. I never feel alone while I'm skating with them and traveling with them. It was huge from the guys and it's a nice feeling, I'm not going to lie to be able to go through a routine and go on the ice and wear the note again."

Bur first and foremost, Tarasenko, who has 428 points (214 goals, 214 assists) in 507 regular-season games, said his rocks were his family, including wife Yana and three sons.

"I don't know what I would have done if I don't have them with me," Tarasenko said. "It was a hard year, my injury, and we lost our grandpa. It's been a pretty tough stretch, but they always been with me, kids, especially Yana. 
(St. Louis Blues/Scott Rovak)
Vladimir Tarasenko (91) made a triumphant return to the Blues lineup on
Saturday against the Los Angeles Kings in L.A.

"I don't have words to describe how much they mean for me during this time. They always been with me. When I have a bad moment, they always take it away and take care of me. They did everything possible to make my rehab enjoyable. They know we have (a) plan and everybody's kind of do what's best for me. If I have a rest, everybody understands I need the rest. If it's time to play, I always love to play with the kids, but they're always huge. They're everything for me. Like I said, all I want to wish is they stay healthy and if they stay healthy, I'm going to be happy. This is it."

One thing Tarasenko, 29, wants to have those in the media stop doing, is quit asking about his shoulder. He made clear it feels fine.

"Good. No concerns," he said. "I feel confident. Nothing like ... you don't have to ask me this question anymore. It's all good."

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