It sometimes takes a breakout in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the hockey world to realize how good a player actually is, and it's happening right now for Vladimir Tarasenko.
After scoring two more goals in the St. Louis Blues' 4-3 victory over the Blackhawks in Game 4 on Tuesday night, Tarasenko now has 13 goals in 17 career playoff games, which is the best goals-per-game average in NHL history among players who have played in at least 15 postseason tilts, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
He also has eight goals in nine games against the Blackhawks this year, counting the regular season, two of which were overtime winners during 3-on-3 play at the United Center.
"He's a unique player," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of Tarasenko after Tuesday's win. "It's been a long time since you see players score from distance. He's a very unique player that way because he gets it away so fast and it's so heavy and so accurate. He knows well ahead of time where it's going. It's a very, very unique player. You wish there was more of those guys in the league."
Tarasenko provided a glimpse of his superstar potential at the beginning of the 2015-16 campaign when he was making an early case for the Hart Trophy. The 24-year-old Russian winger compiled 39 points (22 goals, 17 assists) in the first 38 games of the regular season, a notch above a point-per-game pace.
But when the calendar flipped to 2016, he cooled off, scoring 35 points (18 goals, 17 assists) in 42 games the rest of the way, respectively. Despite that, he still was one of only four players that finished the year with 40 goals, the first time he's reached that mark in his young NHL career.
Perhaps his minor dip in production — if you want to call it that — down the stretch was the conservation of energy for the games that really count, because he's certainly a large reason why the Blues have taken a commanding 3-1 series lead in their first-round series against the Blackhawks.
"He’s a great player when he gets his shot through," Blackhawks forward Andrew Shaw said. "He’s a very dangerous guy. We gotta play tight on him, play strong on him. Make sure he doesn’t wind up and create space for himself."
Said Duncan Keith: "He’s got a great shot, quick release and he doesn’t need much time or space. Obviously, a guy that we’ve got to be aware of when we’re out on the ice with him. On the power play, try to get in his lane and he’s good at getting them through. It’s just got to be a team effort."
Ironically, Tarasenko was drafted by the Blues with the No. 16 overall pick in 2010 via a trade from the Ottawa Senators, who sacrificed the pick to acquire current Blackhawks defenseman David Rundblad.
The payoff was surely worth it.
Tarasenko is a lethal weapon on the power play, but he's also making his presence felt during five-on-five play as well.
The Blues have controlled 57.8 percent of the shot attempts when he's on the ice during even-strength play through the first four games of the playoffs, according to war-on-ice.com, a significant increase from his 53.2 percentage in the regular season, which is an already solid number.
If the Blackhawks have any shot at overcoming a 3-1 series deficit, stopping No. 91 is up there on the priority list.
"His shot's great," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "We gotta tighten it up when he's out there, deny him the puck or get in the lane, better sticks. I think he's a very dangerous player and the shot's definitely been on. We're having some looks that maybe be better than that but his shot's finding a way, so we have to be better."