By Lou Korac
NASHVILLE — Certain players have a knack for taking games over, especially on the big stage.
The Blues have had that player all along in Vladimir Tarasenko, who was having difficulties — along with the rest of his teammates — finding his stride earlier in the season.
If Tarasenko wasn’t heating up before, he sure is now, and he capped off a perfect trifecta against two of the top teams in the NHL when he scored his fifth NHL hat trick 16 seconds in to cap off a 5-4 overtime win against the Nashville Predators Sunday afternoon at Bridgestone Arena.
The win for the Blues (27-22-5) was their sixth in a row, matching their longest since winning six in a row from March 17-27, 2018 and moved them temporarily — pending Minnesota’s result against the New York Islanders Sunday — into the first wildcard in the Western Conference and just two points behind Dallas for third in the Central Division.
Who would have thought this scenario was possible when the calender turned to 2019, when the Blues were near the bottom of the league and 10 points out of a playoff position?
But here they are, and the momentum — and confidence — continues to build.
“We’re finding ways to win, right,” said Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo “I always say good teams find a way to win. It was a quick turnaround. We were running a little low on energy there. There were breakdowns defensively but whoever was going to keep chipping away, finding a way to win was going to win the game. It doesn’t matter how long it took or what happened. We got away with two points.”
The Blues won the home-and-home with the Predators (33-19-5), winning 3-2 Saturday at Enterprise Center, just two days after completing the dad’s trip with a 1-0 overtime win at Tampa Bay on Thursday.
“We’re making our push,” said Blues center Ryan O’Reilly, who had two assists. “We’re fighting for our lives here and again, let’s get a good rest but it’s get prepared for the next one. We’ve got to keep this going because there’s other teams winning too. It’s a tough fight, but we enjoy this. We’re having fun playing hockey right now.”
And a good story out of this is Jake Allen making 40 saves, his first game in 24 days after losing 5-2 to the Boston Bruins on Jan. 17. Jordan Binnington had started the past seven games.
“I’ll tell you, I’d put that up against anything in the world. That’s tough,” Allen said. “I think it’s probably one of the longest stretches I’ve been off since I played, been in the NHL. It’s tough. If you’re a goalie or a player, sticking your legs back more than anything, you always feel a little bit wonky out there at the start of the game, but you try and settle in as quick as you can and find your rhythm again. So that was the biggest thing. A big game, a big rivalry and we’re clawing for points. It was tough, but it was fun.”
Tarasenko, who extended his point streak to eight games (seven goals, five assists), scored in Tarasenko-like fashion, and it was quite impressive.
After O’Reilly won the opening faceoff, Nashville’s Victor Arvidsson poked the puck loose, but Tarasenko picked it up, raced past the speedy Arvidsson, cut inside of Nashville captain Roman Josi before snapping a shot from the slot past Juuse Saros to end the game after the Predators made a furious third-period comeback from a 3-1 deficit.
“Yeah, I just try take it to the net. Just had to beat one guy,” Tarasenko said. “Good things happen when you go to the net and win game for us. It feels nice, especially against Nashville, we go these four points. It’s huge for the team.
“… When you do this (cut move) a lot, you know teams start taking it away. Not many times you can do it right now. League gets faster. Guys defend really well, but sometimes it works and it works in overtime. Usually if you think you’re going to score, you’re not going to score. Just try to shoot low blocker, and it goes in.”
Tarasenko, who has 11 of his 22 goals in the past 16 games, also scored a beauty in the second period to give the Blues a 2-0 lead, then got a big third-period goal after the Predators made a huge push and tied the game 3-3 and put the Blues up 4-3.
“The three goals are huge, he’s feeling it right now for sure,” Blues interim coach Craig Berube said of Tarasenko. “I thought he had a strong game scoring three goals, he had eight shots on net, so he’s a strong player tonight.”
Teammates that have played with Tarasenko know what kind of player he is and just how effective he can be.
“Pretty impressive,” Pietrangelo said. “I think we all had a feeling there in overtime when he gets that move outside-in, you’re not stopping him. We’re going to need him to keep doing that. He’s on a roll.”
“He’s got confidence in that stick, whatever stick he’s got, he’s made the most of it,” Allen said of Tarasenko. “He’s scoring at key times, which is even more impressive. That fourth goal, I know it went off someone, but it’s a crucial goal. He’s really doing is job and he’s got confidence in his stick. When he does that, he’s tough to stop.”
It has been quite the display for the Blues from a standpoint of being able to take the opposition’s best shots and going back to their game again. They took two huge haymakers from Nashville in the third period Sunday and when their top gun was needed again, Tarasenko delivered.
“Yeah, I was trying to get it to him a little cleaner … but obviously he played a phenomenal game,” O’Reilly said of Tarasenko. “Yeah, it was kind of a little breakdown. He made something out of nothing and won us the game. He was a huge reason why we won tonight.”
After a goalless first period, the Blues and Predators combined for four goals in a span of 2 minutes 55 seconds, including three in 70 seconds, in the second period.
Pietrangelo made it 1-0 at 2:56 with a power-play goal on a wrist shot. He fired the shot past Juuse Saros from the high slot after Robert Thomas broke up a shorthanded 2-on-1 that sprung the play going back the other way.
“We’ve been setting up good, we’ve been getting in, we just have to simplify, shoot more pucks,” Pietrangelo said. “If we’ve got to score on the rush, we’ll do that. We’ll just find a way.”
Tarasenko’s 20th goal of the season made it 2-0 at 4:41 from the left circle, a quick snipe top shelf from a sharp angle, but Arvidsson’s goal 25 seconds later cut the Blues lead to 2-1 after a backdoor play caromed off Tarasenko with the puck paying in the crease.
But Bozak scored on a backhand from the high slot at 5:51 to make it 3-1 after Jaden Schwartz’s steal and movement of the puck the other way with Alexander Steen.
“I think, it goes back to the confidence,” Berube said of the team’s ability to bounce back after allowing a goal. “The team’s confident, they feel good about themselves.”
When Josi scored on a wraparound at 2:48 of the third and Arvidsson’s second of the game at 6:10 tied it 3-3, the roof was about to blow off, and so was a potential Blues win that would have been tough to swallow.
But they were able to take the toughest of body blows and regroup. Earlier in the year, probably not.
“We’re comfortable with each other,” O’Reilly said. “We know we’ve been in these situations before. We know what we need to do, following the staples of our game, which is playing hard, playing heavy and winning battles.
“You look at that third period, that wasn’t great. They hemmed us in a lot, but we stuck with it. ‘Jakey’ stood on his head again. They could have took that game over, but he played great back there and gave us a chance to win. That’s sometimes what the game calls for and it’s huge on a back-to-back.”
Tarasenko made it 4-3 at 7:06 off a 2-on-1 with O’Reilly, a shot from the right circle that caromed off Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis and past Saros, but Filip Forsberg tied the game again 4-4 at 12:53.
The Blues were at a point where one point would have been sufficient considering the circumstances of playing three tough opponents in a span of three and a half days. But these Blues are in it to win it, and they did just that.
“All this talk about confidence. We had a lead, they come back, we get a lead again, they come back,” Tarasenko said. “It’s kind of hard to play like this, but if you’re confident with each other, you find ways to win games like this. They play really hard, they have really good team and they’re really competitive. It’s really emotional. It’s a big two points for us.”