Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Tarasenko outshines countryman Kaprizov with hat trick, helping Blues to 5-2 win over Wild in Game 5

Natural hat trick in third period of 2-2 game puts Blues ahead 
3-2 in series, with chance to close it out Thursday in St. Louis

ST. PAUL, Minn.. -- Kirill Kaprizov has received most of the headlines in this Blues vs. Minnesota Wild series and rightfully so.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
In Game 5, it was a battle of Russian stars, and Vladimir Tarasenko
(right) got the better of Kirill Kaprizov with a hat trick.

And when Kaprizov was doing his best to try and stick a dagger into the Blues in Game 5 of the Western Conference first round on Tuesday and put St. Louis on the verge of elimination, another Russian superstar, lurking in the woods, or in this case, on the ice, was waiting in the wings.

Vladimir Tarasenko has been on this stage before and has performed on it, and has stood on top of it a plethora of times.

Add another one for the 2019 Stanley Cup champion when he scored a third-period natural hat trick in a game that was hanging in the balance, and a series hanging in the balance. The Blues rode Tarasenko's broad shoulders to a 5-2 win over the Wild at Xcel Energy Center to take a 3-2 series lead back to St. Louis for Game 6 on Thursday.

When Kaprizov potted two power-play goals in the first period to erase what was a strong start by the Blues and a 1-0 lead on a goal by new girl dad Ryan O'Reilly, Kaprizov had outscored Tarasenko 7-1 to that point. 

Kaprizov is the rising Russian star, but Tarasenko is always a threat who can strike at a moment's notice. All it takes is one chance and like a piranha, Tarasenko smelled blood in the water and changed this series on a dime.

And instead of gloating about gaining the upper hand on Kaprizov, at least on this night, Tarasenko only focused on what mattered most.

"No, it's not the time to think about any achievements," Tarasenko said after his seventh NHL hat trick and second in the postseason, with both against the Wild (April 18, 2015). "The biggest thing is we won the game and let's move onto the next one. At this point with experience in 2019, we learned that only wins matters and it's good we have a win and we need to get ready for the next one.

"Happy to win. Obviously happy to score, I'm not going to lie, but more happy to win."
Say what you will, but there has to be some inner competition there between star players, especially ones from the same country. There's that game within the game, even if the two have become friends off the ice.

"Obviously when you play against guys from Russia, you have some extra emotions, but at this time of the year, I think it's more St. Louis against Minnesota," Tarasenko said. "I know him last couple years. I know him more that we have same agent now (Paul Theofanous). We talk once in a while, but he don't talk since the start of the series. 

"He's a good guy, have some success in season, but he's our opponent, so no friendship over there. Just try to play. Don't think where he's from. Just play hard against everybody here."
And with that, the battle lines were drawn, and now Tarasenko has the upper hand thanks to a vintage performance.

"(Tarasenko’s) an elite player, great shot," said Blues forward Brandon Saad, whose clutch second-period goal at 15:28 tied the game 2-2. "A special player, you can’t say enough good things about him … obviously helped our team win tonight. We know how big of a part of our team he is. Yeah, like I said, a special player, great goals tonight and we’re looking to move on to the next game.

"... Obviously whoever contributes, it’s great. He had a great third period. We’re happy to move on from that."

It wasn't just Tarasenko that sat by and watched a fellow Russian grab the headlines, but it had to feel good for Pavel Buchnevich, one of five Russians (four with the Blues) on the ice in this competition.

It was Buchnevich, who had two assists in four games coming in, that won a puck behind the Wild net from Minnesota defenseman Jacob Middleton and slipped a feathery pass into the slot and Tarasenko was not going to be denied at 1:03 and gave the Blues a 3-2 lead.

"I thought they were pretty solid, like all game, stayed with it and came through in the third period for us," Blues coach Craig Berube said. "It’s tight-checking out there, you just got to keep working."

Tarasenko and Buchnevich have that mojo on the ice.

"He's a great player," Tarasenko said. "He did this many times before. We talk a lot about staying connected in the o-zone. He's a great, skill player and very unselfish all the time. Not surprised he made this play and that was a great play and big goal for us."

And they did, and this time, another Russian (Ivan Barbashev) got in on the act. His drop pass to Tarasenko at the top of the right circle gave Tarasenko enough for a shooter to pick his spot and snipe.

Marc-Andre Fleury didn't see, or know, what was coming when Tarasenko picked the top of the net and make it 4-2 1:28 after his first goal. It left the 19,197 in attendance in stunned silence.

"His shot can beat goalies from distance," Berube said of Tarasenko. "But the thing for me right now, watching him play is the work ethic without the puck. He’s reloading hard, checking, being physical. And eventually, he gets a couple opportunities and he buries them. That was really good by him tonight. Right from the get-go, I thought those guys worked hard and were on top of things and doing the right things."

Sure, there's pressure to perform from the big guns. Even after scoring twice in the first period, Kaprizov, who led the Wild in goals (47), assists (61) and points (108) in the regular season, must have felt like he could do more in a 2-2 game in a 2-2 series.

But when the Blues elevated their game in the third period and Tarasenko having a heavy hand in it, he stepped up to the chess board and said, "Check mate."

"I think biggest thing we have Saader's goal at the end of the second," Tarasenko again deflecting credit to a teammate. "It gives us a lot of emotions and a lot of confidence going into the third. Score two fast goals and just play our game until the end. It was a big game for us. Now we need to reset our minds and get ready for the next one."

One thing Tarasenko has over Kaprizov is experience. Experience of winning and experience of going through the highs and lows of the NHL playoffs. Having been a part of a number of ups and downs, especially in 2019, there is a mindset of staying with it no matter the circumstances.

"I think biggest thing in our mentality from that year was just one game," Tarasenko said. "It doesn't matter how you lose, in overtime or it's like 5-1. One loss and you need to reset your mind fast and get ready for the next game and give your best there. Just trust in the group, trust in the group and trust in the coaches, trust in the players sitting beside you, the team can have success.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Robert Thomas (18) celebrates with teammate Vladimir Tarasenko, who
scored three third-period goals in a 5-2 win over Minnesota in Game 5.

"Obviously it's nice to make plays and play with the puck and create some opportunities, but in playoffs, sometimes it's tight. Teams check pretty well. It's not frustrating, but it's hard to switch your mind to play more of a grind game. Sometimes that's what you need to do and if it helped our team win Game 4, I was ready to do this again today. Stay connected in the o-zone give us our first goal."

Tarasenko and the Blues just need to stay connected for one more win in this series, and it's on to Denver.

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