St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock has been around the game for a long time. He’s smart and experienced and there is almost nothing he hasn’t seen at the NHL level. That’s why when he spoke about the Blues’ struggles to score in the Western Conference final, it was, as usual, worth taking note.
After the Blues’ 3-0 loss to the San Jose Sharks that stretched their goalless streak in this series to 130 minutes and 45 seconds, Hitchcock was asked by reporters specifically about Vladimir Tarasenko, which is fair. He’s the centerpiece of the Blues offense and the player most likely to open the offensive floodgates.
There have been some suggestions on social media that Tarasenko has been invisible. Not sure that’s the case at all. In fact, Tarasenko has 21 shot attempts in the three games in this series, which is second on both teams only to Brent Burns, who has 28. Among forwards, the closest player to Tarasenko in shot attempts is Joe Pavelski, who has 16. Compare that to other Blues forwards. After scoring his goal in Game 1, Jori Lehtera had zero shot attempts in Game 2 and just three in Game 3. Troy Brouwer has just four in the entire series and Jaden Schwartz has just eight.
Of course, it’s difficult to get shot attempts when the other team doesn’t let you have the puck. It’s even more difficult when the opponent is playing as well in its own end as the Sharks are. Which is why it seemed so many of the Blues’ forays into the offensive zone were of the ‘one and done’ variety and why Martin Jones has logged two of the easiest shutouts of his career.
But it was interesting what Hitchcock said about Tarasenko in the context of the conference final. “The thing that could help him, we can't give him, which is more experience,” Hitchcock said. “Can’t give it to him. He’s learning hard lessons, like any young player. Robby (Fabbri) is learning it. (Colton) Parayko is learning it. Vlady is learning some really hard lessons.”
The league is dominated by ridiculously talented young players more than ever before. Teenagers come out of major junior hockey now and step directly into NHL rosters and not only survive, but become impact players in record time. But there are so very few who can experience this level of competition for the first time and manage to breeze their way through it. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were two who bucked that trend and have been outstanding playoff performers from the beginning. But just as a rising team, for whatever reason, needs that soul-crushing defeat in the playoffs at least once before becoming a true contender, most players also have to experience that sense of failure before realizing what it takes to have an impact on the game when the stakes are the highest.
Hitchcock said playoffs are for veterans and he’s right. And if he needs any more ammunition for his argument, all he has to do is look across the ice. How many times did this core group with the Sharks stumble in the playoffs before getting it right? How many times did they look as though they were completely out of their element when things got really difficult? How many times did they look completely lost when they were removed from their comfort zone? Joe Thornton is right when he says, “I know I’m a great player,” even when he says it as a joke, the way he did after Game 3. But how many times has Thornton left Sharks fans wanting and disappointed after a playoff? How many times did it happen to Steve Yzerman?
“Some guys never learn it. Some guys can’t do it,” Hitchcock said. “Some guys learn that lesson and they really become accomplished players, especially scoring players. But (Tarasenko) is going to have to fight through everything if he expects to score a goal and contribute offensively. There’s some days that he’s going to end up being an effective player and not even get a point, but he’s going to have to have an understanding of what it takes to play at this time of year, in the conference final, with 100 percent commitment on the other side, still be an effective player. These are lessons you can talk to him about. Unfortunately for all of us, you got to go through it.”
The Blues drew a Chicago Blackhawks team that has played 65 playoff games the past three years, then a Dallas Stars team that plays a style that is really exciting, but ultimately doesn’t win in the playoffs. And they needed seven games in each of those series. Now they’re facing a completely different animal. Hitchcock is right. It’s really hard. If it weren’t, winning the Stanley Cup wouldn’t be such an incredible accomplishment.
Tarasenko and some of the Blues young stars are learning that very lesson right now, the same way so many NHL greats did before them. And how quickly they put on their big-boy pants will determine whether or not the Blues will get back into this series.