The Vladimir Tarasenko narrative has officially reached its crescendo.
Following the Blues’ 6-3 loss to the Sharks in Game 5 on Monday night, it’s all fans and pundits can talk about: Where is The Note’s best player?
Blues fans have been socked with the reality that their team’s season might be coming to a close.
They’re angry, they’re looking for someone to blame, and Tarasenko (who’s pointless streak has now reached five games) makes for the perfect patsy.
Narratives, in general, are inconsequential. They make for good fodder around the water cooler but they often lack in substance.
In Tarasenko’s case, there is some truth in people’s complaints. After all, he has been a ghost in this series.
But the Blues’ failures to this point aren’t all on him.
It’s ridiculous to pin losses on one player in any sport, especially in hockey where players are constantly shuffled on and off the ice.
Plus, goals are random.
They’re a product of time and space, not to mention puck possession and a team’s ability to be strong on the forecheck.
Tarasenko has neither time nor space due to a combination of his play and the Sharks’ defensive strategy.
Just as we heaped praise onto Alex Pietrangelo’s shoulders for the yeomen work he did versus the top players on the Blackhawks and Stars, Marc-Edouard Vlasic has been fantastic for San Jose, smothering Tarasenko every time he gets the puck. As Vlasic noted after Game 5, the Sharks’ forwards are also doing a great job with their back pressure to limit the opportunities Tarasenko has had one-on-one when he’s at his best.
When Tarasenko does have a little space, Vlasic has closed quickly, has frustrated the Blues’ star with his stick work, and has forced him to the perimeter where goaltender Martin Jones has a chance to make a save.
Of course, it’s up to Tarasenko to adjust to how the Sharks are playing him, which is the other issue. Nobody argues he has the ability to impact a game and this can’t be the first time an opponent has been forced to strategize in order to limit his scoring opportunities, so perhaps he’s dealing with an undisclosed injury.
Or maybe he’s lost his confidence. Or he’s frustrated. Or he’s pressing. Or he’s worn down. Whatever it is that’s ailing Tarasenko, it couldn’t have come at a worst time for the Blues, not just because a Cup is on the line, but because of what the Sharks are getting from the top of their roster.
Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton combined for six points in Game 5 alone. One of Pavelski’s goals on Monday tied the game at 3-3 on a San Jose power play at 18:33 of the second period, and the other came early in the third to put the Sharks ahead for good. So it’s not just that the Sharks’ best players are producing, it’s that they’re producing in clutch moments.
The Blues haven’t been without their luminaries this series. Troy Brouwer is perhaps the team’s MVP this entire postseason and continues to make an impact on a game-by-game basis. Robby Fabbri scored a goal in Game 5 despite questions about whether or not he’d even play due to an injury suffered in Game 4. Jaden Schwartz finally got into the mix with a goal as well and the entire fourth line continues to play with energy and urgency every time it hits the ice.
But Pavelski and Thornton are validating anyone who has ever claimed that to win this time of year, your best players have to be your best players. It’s not just Pavelski and Thornton either: Tomas Hertl, Logan Couture and Brent Burns have been outstanding in this series as well.
Everyone knew the Western Conference Final was going to be a grind. In many ways, the Blues and Sharks are mirror images of each other. Both are heavy, physical teams that rely on their defensive structure above all. While many thought it would be the goaltenders that would decide this series, the truth is that Martin Jones and Brian Elliott/Jake Allen have been more or less footnotes.
What has decided this series is puck possession. Thornton, Pavelski and Hertl have controlled the puck, hemmed the Blues in their zone, and showed patience waiting for The Note to make a mistake. Then they capitalize.
There’s nothing really to debate: Zero points in five games is unacceptable for Tarasenko. There’s no doubt he’s a great player, but the special ones perform when the stakes are highest. In a series this close, Tarasenko could have been the X-factor that tilted the ice in the Blues’ favor. Instead, his absence on the stat sheet has become a narrative with actual teeth.
It’s also true, however, that if the Blues go on to lose this series, it’ll be a collective effort. Tarasenko didn’t register a point in the Blues’ 6-3 victory in Game 4 either. They won that game because they adjusted their forecheck, forced the Sharks into turnovers, refused to lose races to the puck and most importantly, limited San Jose’s ability to get the puck out of its defensive zone.
If the Blues play that way in Game 6 on Wednesday night in San Jose, then we will see this team have an opportunity to defend their home ice in Game 7 with a trip to the Stanley Cup on the line. There’s still time to turn things around.
But if Pavelski, Thornton and Hertl dominate again, then the absence of Tarasenko will be one of many narratives to emerge at the conclusion of this series.