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Blackhawks aim to stop Tarasenko's goals

by Amalie Benjamin / Chicago Blackhawks

CHICAGO -- It got lost in the replays and the decisions by officials and the hoopla that followed. It got lost that a few millimeters were all that separated St. Louis Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko from two goals in Game 2 of the Western Conference First Round series against the Chicago Blackhawks.

He had one shot on goal in Game 1, though he had four shot attempts blocked and three more that missed the goal. That, it seemed, wasn't enough, not for a 40-goal scorer who led the Blues offense this season.

That changed in Game 2. Tarasenko scored the first goal for the Blues, coming across the slot after teammate Jori Lehtera wrested control of the puck away from Blackhawks defenseman Michal Rozsival. Tarasenko also scored what would have been the second goal, but that play was overturned after Chicago coach Joel Quenneville used his challenge and a video review showed Lehtera was offside.

Chicago won the game 2-1 to tie the best-of-7 series 1-1. That was the good news for the Blackhawks. The bad news was that Tarasenko looked primed to make his mark on the series.

"He's one of those few players in the League that can [get open]," Chicago defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said. "His release is so good. So we always have to stay really close, pretty much not more than a stick length away from him, because his release is so quick and the puck just gets like a rocket in a matter of … just so quick.

"So we have to be close to him all the time and always know where he is. He's a strong guy too, so it's a big challenge to play against him. It's a lot of fun. They have some other guys there too that's pretty good at shooting the puck, but he's definitely one of those guys that don't need a lot of space to create something. It's always a little extra hard to play against those types of players."

But that's Chicago's challenge now. Keep Tarasenko contained, keep him from taking over a game and the series. It won't be easy. But the Blackhawks have someone who knows Tarasenko well.

"When Tarasenko is at the peak of his form, [I] cannot define the keys to defend him," Blackhawks forward Artemi Panarin said through teammate Artem Anisimov, who acted as interpreter at United Center on Saturday. "[I] think you need to play closer to him, and take away time and space."

Panarin and Tarasenko are friends and were teammates for Russia at international tournaments, including the 2015 IIHF World Championship. So if anyone has inside information how to counteract what Tarasenko can bring, it's Panarin.

It seems the knowledge is there. The question is more about whether the Blackhawks can execute the way they want and need to in order to stop him.

"He's their top scorer, so obviously when he's on the ice you have to be extra aware of him," Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa said. "He's pretty shifty. He can find the room for himself. He likes to cut in the middle when he crosses the blue line and make something happen, so definitely we have to be aware of when he's on the ice and especially between the hash marks. He's so good. He scored basically two goals. Obviously the second one was disallowed because of the rule, but you have to be aware of him. Don't give him too much room like we did maybe [in Game 2] on those goals."

With the series low-scoring, and likely to remain that way, a hot Tarasenko would be a difference-maker. Of course, so would a hot Patrick Kane for the Blackhawks, or Panarin.

The games, as Hossa said, have been extremely tight. So the Blackhawks have to hope they can figure out how to limit Tarasenko's scoring while getting the goals they need themselves, at least enough to move on to the next round.

"Top players, they're going to get their turn," Quenneville said. "In games over the course of a series, they're going to have their A-plus chances. They're going to be, 'How'd you miss him there?' Or, 'What a play.' They know where the quiet ice is. They know when they're going to get their opportunities."

Chicago has to figure out how to make sure those opportunities don't turn into series-changing goals.

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