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Round 2

Predators hope to contain Vladimir Tarasenko again in Game 4

Defensive matchups in Nashville kept Blues leading scorer in check in Game 3

by Arpon Basu @ArponBasu / LNH.com Senior Managing Editor

NASHVILLE -- Vladimir Tarasenko is the offensive engine of the St. Louis Blues.

That is hardly a secret.

But even though every team that faces the Blues knows how important it is to try and contain Tarasenko, he is so talented that he scores regardless.

 

[RELATED: Complete Blues vs. Predators series coverage]

 

Tarasenko has two goals in three games of the Western Conference Second Round series against the Nashville Predators, but each came in the same game.

Not coincidentally, it was the game the Blues won (Game 2), but they trail the best-of-7 series 2-1 in large part because the Predators managed to keep Tarasenko off the scoresheet in Games 1 and 3.

It will be the task of Blues coach Mike Yeo to free Tarasenko up in Game 4 on Tuesday (9:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports), but the Predators defensive scheme against him changed once the series shifted to Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, giving Predators coach Peter Laviolette the final change and thus greater control of the matchups.

Video: STL@WSH, Gm3: Rinne denies Tarasenko on power play

Yeo regularly sent Tarasenko out against the defensive pairing of Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis in St. Louis, but in Game 3, it was Matthias Ekholm and P.K. Subban who were given that responsibility by Laviolette.

Tarasenko had three shots on goal and attempted six others, but otherwise spent most of his night playing in the St. Louis zone.

"It's going to be a good challenge regardless of which of those four defensemen they put out there," Yeo said Monday. "It's not unlike you look at our top four defensemen, and it's sort of a pick your poison. It's going to be guys who can defend, guys who can skate, guys who can move the puck.

"But [Tarasenko] is a guy who has been through all kinds of challenges and all kinds of matchups. As long he's on top of his game and we surround him the right way then that would be no issue."

It certainly was an issue in Game 3, a 3-1 win by the Predators.

The Blues controlled 35.5 percent of the 5-on-5 shot attempts with Tarasenko on the ice, according to NaturalStatTrick.com. That was down from 60.6 percent in Game 1 and 44.8 percent in Game 2.

About eight minutes into the second period of Game 3, Yeo split up his top line of Tarasenko, Paul Stastny and Jaden Schwartz, putting Jori Lehtera into Stastny's spot to re-create the famed 'STL' line that had success two seasons ago.

It didn't really work, at least not for Tarasenko with Subban and Ekholm glued to him. Of the 12 shifts Tarasenko played after the line switch, eight were against that defensive pairing.

Video: NSH@STL, Gm2: Tarasenko nets second for late lead

"I think we grow from it for sure," Ekholm said Monday. "I think both pairs want to play against the top competition. [Sunday] night, we got the mission to do it and you get that little extra motivation. Not that you really need it, but it is just that little extra thing.

"You really want to shut them down. I thought we did a pretty good job."

Shutting Tarasenko down is of vital importance to the Predators because of how pivotal he is to the Blues offense. In the regular season, Tarasenko earned a point on 82.7 percent of the goals at 5-on-5 he was on the ice for, according to HockeyAnalysis.com. It was the sixth highest percentage in the NHL, second only to Anaheim Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf (87.8 percent) among players still in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"He's a game-breaker, he's one of the best players in the League," Subban said. "So I know that as a [defense] pairing we talk about it, we relish the opportunity to be a shutdown group. I know for me, in my career, I've always relished that opportunity in the playoffs to play against the other team's top lines and I take pride in that."

Yeo has little control over the matchup in Game 4, but sometimes coaches will go to extreme lengths to get some of that control back on the road, such as pulling players off immediately after a faceoff in order to send them back out against a different group.

Yeo says he has no intention of doing that because it would take his team out of the natural flow of the game, and often times, it can do more harm than good.

"The one thing you don't want to do is that you're chasing matchups so hard that you take guys out of the game," Yeo said. "What it comes down to most of the time is the guy that you're on the ice with, you have to beat. And that's what we need [Tuesday]."

So the onus will be on Tarasenko to win his matchup. The chances of the Blues winning the game and tying the series might come down to Tarasenko's ability to do that.

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