PITTSBURGH – It’s become fairly commonplace for San Jose Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic to be staring into the eyes of the best players in the world. And after getting a steady diet of Vladimir Tarasenko in the Western Conference final, Vlasic is preparing to renew a battle with Sidney Crosby that dates back more than a decade to their days in the Quebec League.
When the puck drops for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final tonight, expect to see an awful lot of Vlasic on the ice at the same time as Crosby. It will be more difficult for the Sharks to get the matchups they want in the first two games, but not impossible. And Vlasic is ready to see a lot of No. 87 for the Pittsburgh Penguins over the next couple of weeks.
“It will be the same as in the first three series,” Vlasic said. “We’re playing against the top players on every time – Sid, (Evgeni) Malkin and those types of guys for Pittsburgh. Me and (Justin Braun) will just keep doing what we did, taking away time and space and hopefully it works out.”
Any discussion of the best shutdown defensemen in the game today has to include Vlasic. When he’s on the ice, the Sharks end is where scoring opportunities often go to die. It’s what got him on the roster for the Canadian Olympic team and what landed him on the World Cup of Hockey roster. What makes all of it even more remarkable is how Vlasic does it, rarely finding himself on the wrong side of the rulebook. He’s not a browbeater or a guy who chirps, relying on a very good stick and strong positioning to do his work.
And it will all get ramped up to another level starting tonight. Vlasic said at the NHL level, he’s always been on the ice against Crosby and remembers seeing a lot of him in junior hockey when his Quebec Remparts would go against Crosby’s Rimouski Oceanic. Considering Crosby scored 120 goals and 303 points in just two junior seasons, not many defensemen had a whole lot of success stopping him. But Vlasic gave it his best shot.
“It was a lot of fun playing against – well, now he’s the best player in the world and back then he probably was at his age, too,” Vlasic said. “He’s a professional. One of the best professionals out there. Playing with him at the Olympics, playing against him, his work ethic, his commitment to the game, his commitment to offense and defense. That’s why he’s a leader and was a leader on Team Canada, which had plenty of those.”
Some of Vlasic’s best work in the playoffs came in the Western Conference final against the St. Louis Blues. A large part of the reason the Sharks won was that Vlasic was able to keep Tarasenko off the scoresheet, limiting him to two meaningless goals late in Game 6. And not only did Tarasenko not score, it almost looked at times as though his spirit was broken. Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said that Tarasenko was learning a very painful lesson in that series and would probably emerge a better player because of it. And if he does, he can thank Vlasic in part for teaching him how difficult it is to play in the playoffs and what it takes to play through that.
It was a daunting challenge, but one that Vlasic accepted with zeal. Tarasenko is one of the most dangerous players in the NHL when he has the puck on his stick and it was Vlasic’s job to make sure it didn’t get there. As a result, Tarasenko was almost invisible throughout the series. In Games 3 and 4, when the Sharks were able to get the matchups they wanted, Tarasenko was held to just three shots and nine shot attempts. Through the six games, Tarasenko had just 15 shots and 36 shot attempts.
“When you play Tarasenko, a pure goal scorer, and you’re able to shut him down for six games is unbelievable,” Vlasic said. “Did I expect to do that? No. Did I expect him to score every game? Yes. But he got his chances and (Sharks goalie Martin Jones) saved them. It’s not going to be every game that you’re going to shut them down. You have to limit their opportunities and you give them what you want to give them a hopefully it works out. But every series gets harder and this will be the toughest one.”
One of the problems for the Sharks is that Vlasic won’t be able to be on the ice all the time. The Penguins have well-documented talent on their top three lines, so it will be incumbent on the Sharks to take those opportunities away. A key factor in the series will be how well the Sharks can contain the speed and skill of the Penguins forwards. And one way to do that will be to keep them from getting the puck.
“We want to impose our game on them,” said Sharks coach Peter DeBoer. “Our game is puck possession, offensive zone time, pressure, time and space. I’m not going to give you any more than that.”