It was a move that was questioned at the time, but Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock’s decision to sit rookie forward Vladimir Tarasenko in Games One, Two, and Three paid off. Now, Hitchcock has subtly indicated that Tarasenko will play his first National Hockey League playoff game on Monday.
“(He just needs to) get up to the competitive level,” said Hitchcock. “I had a talk with him yesterday and he’s excited to play. He deserves to play based on his regular season. He can play left-to-right and he gives us some options moving forward if the game gets close.”
Hitchcock elected to sit Tarasenko when forward T.J. Oshie made his return to the lineup for Game One versus the Los Angeles Kings. The two candidates to sit were Tarasenko or Adam Cracknell. Cracknell has spent seven seasons split between the American Hockey League and the Blues. He also has a slight advantage over Tarasenko in NHL games played. But the decision was most affected by how well Cracknell and the rest of the fourth line--which has since been nicknamed the “CPR” line because if its ability to revive the team when it is zapped—had been playing in the final weeks of the season.
The “CPR” line has been the Blues’ most consistent thus far in the playoffs, doing exactly what their alias suggests. The line consists of Ryan Reaves, Chris Porter, and Cracknell, and is responsible for 33 of the Blues’ 115 recorded hits through three games. Cracknell has been a big part of that line, but despite his strong play through the first three games of the playoffs, Cracknell will be sitting in Game Four for Tarasenko.
Tarasenko was sidelined in late February with a concussion, which sidetracked his season. Before being injured, Tarasenko had 12 points (six goals, six assists). But when he returned, Tarasenko did not have the same scoring touch he had early in the season. Tarasenko has no goals in his last 15 games, and since his return from the injury, he has just two goals.
Tarasenko’s inexperience in the playoffs is a cause for concern, but he has been able to watch his fellow Blues teammates in the first three games, and has a better understanding of just how difficult the playoffs are to play in.
“I think he saw the level of intensity, and he understands it,” said Hitchcock. “He’s been a good player. Before the injury, he was a really good player. He came back a bit tentative from the injury. When you have a player that contributes like he does, is strong on the puck, and is determined like he is, he is an asset he can use.”
Tarasenko is not accustomed to watching games, rather than playing in them, especially games of high importance. In the Kontinental Hockey League, Tarasenko was a young star, who was a vital part of his team’s success. He played in just three playoff games, all with Novosibirsk Siber, but had no points. The NHL playoffs will be much different, and much more difficult.
Tarasenko is likely to start on the fourth line, where Cracknell spent the first three games. It is likely that Tarasenko will be moved to different lines throughout the game.