To see Vladimir Tarasenko sitting in the interview room of Busch Stadium, hands tucked into his sweatshirt and a smile spread across his face, is to witness an anthropomorphic icebox hinged at the middle. Technically, the St. Louis roster lists its leading scorer at 6' 0" and 219 pounds. It does not, however, specify the exact breakdown between bone, muscle, and rocket-fueled, Russian-fused steel. “He's dangerous,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said later, “because he's one shift away from breaking the thing wide open.”
Sheathed in fog and drenched in drizzle Monday afternoon, the city of St. Louis will gladly forgive Tarasenko for needing an extra shift to overtake the 2017 Winter Classic. Past the midway point of the third period, his two-goal spree within 113 seconds flipped a tie game into a 4-1 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks. By then the Gateway Arch had disappeared from sight beyond the right-center seats, but who needed sentimental sightlines with Tarasenko whipping the sellout crowd into an outdoor frenzy, and then snapping a celebratory selfie in front of the home dugout steps? “Leave it to Vladi to put us on top there," forward Robbi Fabbri said. "I wouldn’t expect anything less from him."
If Tarasenko’s second goal—an on-the-rush dart that beat Chicago goalie Corey Crawford glove-side, giving the Blues a comfortable 3-1 cushion—was the 25-year-old as his most dominant self, the game-winner at 12:05 required a bit more luck. With forward Ryan Reaves’ interference penalty successfully killed, Hitchcock deployed Fabbri with Tarasenko and center Jori Lehtera, instead of usual winger Jaden Schwartz. As the Blackhawks turned the puck over in St. Louis’ zone, the trio took off with only defenseman Nicklas Hjalmarsson in their way. Hjalmarsson handled the odd-man rush well, swiftly recovering onto Tarasenko after Fabbri saucered the puck ahead from the blue line. But as Tarasenko tried backhanding a centering pass to Lehtera from below the right faceoff circle, the puck ticked off Hjalmarsson’s skate and trickled past Crawford. “It wasn't on purpose,” Tarasenko said, trailing off with no further explanation. “So…”
So…revelry. The Blues became just the third home winner in nine Winter Classics, able to ignore all the pomp that can, to a degree, become cumbersome. The team, for instance, spent Sunday night in a hotel, separated from family like it was an ordinary road trip. “That was a good thing,” said defenseman Jay Bouwmeester. “A lot of us have people in town, you’re worried about everyone getting there, they give you a half-hour to skate and you want to get the most out of it with your family. Maybe there are some distractions in that sense.”
But while many Blackhawks have grown accustomed to outdoor games—Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Jonathan Toews tied the NHL record for such appearances with five—every St. Louis skater was new to the experience, save Bouwmeester and defenseman Carl Gunnarsson.
In 2014, before the Olympic gold medal game in Sochi, Bouwmeester remembers Team Canada GM Steve Yzerman advising his charges to “look around in warmup and realize where you are.” In other words, soak up the moment. “It’s not going to happen here again for years,” said Bouwmeester, whose slick feed found Patrik Berglund for the Blues’ first goal, erasing Michal Kempny’s opening salvo for the Blackhawks. “You’ve got to put it in the memory bank and just enjoy it."
The franchise’s 50th year of existence, then, kicked off with plenty potential deposits. Like the fireworks and flares casting the whole stadium in smoke. The fans perched atop the parking garage behind center field. The trumpeter blaring the national anthem, standing on the strings of a giant decorative electric guitar. An empty-netter from Alexander Steen, the 501st point of his career. Twenty-two saves from goalie Jake Allen, none bigger than while killing Reaves’ minor, when Toews batted a puck at waist level and a rebound hopped high into the air, forcing Allen to settle under it like a Cardinals catcher. (We were down in the batting cages yesterday throwing some balls around,” Allen said, “so that might have helped.”)
It was about raised-local celebs: Nelly performing pregame, Jon Hamm hamming on the video board, center Paul Stastny leading all Blues forwards with 20:13 of ice time. Adopted sons also, like Hitchcock and his black, Stetson-style fedora that he bought from a local millinery, looking as though his plans for 2017 included hunting bandits at Westworld.“I asked the players to vote on it and if they would have voted no, I wouldn't have worn it, but they voted yes,” he said. “They needed a laugh before the game.”
Plenty remained postgame, too. Asked about protecting the 3-1 lead—Chicago had only six third-period shots on goal and none with goalie Corey Crawford (31 saves) pulled—defenseman Alex Pietrangelo first credited Allen, then the corps of blue-liners for limiting second-chance opportunities. “And any time you got Vladi on your team,” the Blues captain said, “usually helps.” To his right, Tarasenko nodded and grinned. “Thanks, man,” whispered the invincible icebox.
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