St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock and winger Vladimir Tarasenko got into a brief spat on the bench following the second period in Game 6. Tarasenko, 24, has seen his ice time slip more than one minute per game from regular season to playoffs.
The St. Louis Blues had the opportunity to close out the Chicago Blackhawks in Games 5 and 6, but an overtime-winner from Patrick Kane and a second-period push Saturday night have forced a Game 7 between the two teams. And while the main focus in St. Louis should be the task at hand, an alternate storyline is popping up in the form of a potential spat between coach Ken Hitchcock and star winger Vladimir Tarasenko.
During the second period of Game 6, the Blues got a late-second period power play with an opportunity to tie the game, but the call came with Tarasenko’s line on the ice and the Russian sniper had just finished up a 41-second shift. So, instead of leaving his top scorer out on the ice, Hitchcock changed up the line and it resulted in the 24-year-old remaining on the bench of the duration of the man advantage.
St. Louis came up empty on the power play, and the Blues headed to the dressing room trailing the Blackhawks by one. As if that wasn’t enough, though, Tarasenko and Hitchcock appeared to exchange some unpleasantries as St. Louis exited the bench and headed to the dressing room:
Neither Tarasenko nor Hitchcock commented on the apparent argument post-game, which was one of the strangest moments of the first-round series between the Blues and Blackhawks. And if the argument was over Tarasenko’s power play ice time — or ice time in general — there’s good reason why they believe themselves to be in the right.
From where Hitchcock is standing, the move to take Tarasenko off for a rest probably seemed like a no-brainer after he had just helped the Blues forecheck and maintain possession leading to the power play. The idea was likely to throw Tarasenko back out on the ice if the Blackhawks were able to clear the zone midway through the power play, but that wasn’t the case. St. Louis moved the puck around the Chicago zone for almost the whole man advantage, and by the time Tarasenko hit the ice there were only nine seconds remaining in the frame.
That said, Tarasenko probably wouldn’t have minded an Alex Ovechkin-esque power play shift where he’s out for the full two minutes, regardless of what happened immediately preceding the whistle. Tarasenko has probably earned that right, too. He scored 40 goals during the regular season, had scored his fourth goal of the series earlier in Game 6 and already had a power play tally in the series.
Altercation between coach and player or not, Tarasenko’s ice time has been a major talking point late in this series. He averaged 18:38 per game in the regular season, but his average ice time has slipped to 17:28 per game through the first six games of the first-round series. He’s only twice eclipsed the 17-minute mark, too, including a game of 16:05 in Game 2. It should be noted that his 16:48 of playing time at even strength was the most among any Blues forward in Game 6.
The blowup after the second period can likely be chalked up to nothing more than frustration. For Tarasenko, he wanted to be on the ice and for Hitchcock, he had just watched his team blow a 3-1 lead. And if the Blues pull off a Game 7 victory, all will likely be forgotten.