Jason Brough

AP

Hitch says we’re ‘starting to see the maturity’ in Tarasenko

ST. LOUIS (AP) Vladimir Tarasenko is known for his goal-scoring ability. Now he’s starting to show other parts of his game.

Tarasenko had a goal and two assists and Alex Pietrangelo scored the go-ahead goal as the St. Louis Blues beat the New Jersey Devils 5-2 on Thursday night.

Jori Lehtera, Nail Yakupov and Patrik Berglund also scored for the Blues, who overcame an early two-goal deficit. Jake Allen made 24 saves as St. Louis improved to 13-1-3 on home ice.

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said Tarasenko is showing an all-around game.

“The part that was good for me was in the third period, he competed defensively,” Hitchcock said. “That’s a big step. He was willing to work for the next goal if it came, and I think that’s just maturity in a player. I think you’re starting to see the maturity in a player, which is a really good sign for this franchise.”

Adam Henrique and Miles Wood scored for the Devils, while Cory Schneider made 26 saves. New Jersey’s losing streak is at a season-high four games and the Devils dropped their seventh straight game against St. Louis.

Henrique gave the Devils a 1-0 lead with a short-handed goal at 7:39 of the first period. Tarasenko whiffed on a shot from the point for the Blues, sending Henrique and Travis Zajac in on a 2-on-1.

Wood scored 4 minutes later to give the Devils a 2-0 lead. Wood put it in an open net after Henrique’s initial shot went wide and caromed off the boards in front of the net.

Tarasenko got the Blues on the board when he scored his second goal in three games on the power play with 2:54 left in the first period. Brad Hunt got an assist and has a point in all four games with the Blues since being called up from the AHL on Dec. 8.

“I thought the one that got us going was the first goal,” Hitchcock said. “He’s (Tarasenko) not feeling great, he’s on for both goals, and then to get one back on the power play kind of just brought us back. To me, we were off and running after that goal.”

Schneider said Tarasenko has one of the best shots in the league.

“He can hold his stick up high, he can look you off or just shoot it at a moment’s notice without any windup or anything like that,” Schneider said. “He’s always been a tough guy to play against and to read and he’s obviously one of the premier players in the league.”

Lehtera deflected a shot by Robby Fabbri for the Blues at 2:05 of the second period to tie it 2-2. It was Lehtera’s fourth goal of the season and first since Nov. 22 at Boston.

Tarasenko found Pietrangelo through the back door for an even strength goal to give the Blues a 3-2 lead at 7:45 of the second period.

“Not a set play, but 4-on-4 is more of a creative game,” Tarasenko said. “We have really good players like Alex and he can read the game well so if he gets open its easier to get the puck to him.”

The three-point night gave Tarasenko 10 points (two goals, eight assists) in his last five games.

“When you shoot the way he does, goalies and d-men really have to respect it,” Pietrangelo said. “It opens up a lot of seams.”

Yakupov made it 4-2 in the third period with his this third goal of the season and first since Oct. 20.

Tarasenko has 22 assists through 31 games and is on pace for a career-high 58.

St. Louis tightened defensively, holding the Devils without a shot for the first 11:23 of the second period.

 

Pre-game reading: Radulov has been a real hit in Montreal

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— Up top, Tuukka Rask is focused on getting the Bruins back to the playoffs. He’s gonna have to be good, and busy, especially if Anton Khudobin can’t find some consistency in the backup role.

— Has any player resurrected his reputation more than Alex Radulov has this season in Montreal? “The big Russian forward has quickly become one of the Canadiens’ most popular players, if not the most popular,” writes the Montreal Gazette. It sounds like Radulov was a real hit Wednesday when the Habs visited Montreal Children’s Hospital to spread some Christmas cheer. He forgot his teeth, which is always good for a few laughs. (Montreal Gazette)

— Pierre LeBrun breaks down the Los Angeles Kings’ situation ahead of the expansion draft. “It’s a given that Drew Doughty, Alec Martinez and Jake Muzzin will be protected.” What’s in question is whether they’ll protect a fourth defenseman, Brayden McNabb, which could leave forwards like Marian Gaborik, Kyle Clifford, and Trevor Lewis unprotected. A tough decision for GM Dean Lombardi, who still has to get Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson signed to extensions. Shedding Gaborik’s cap hit may actually be advantageous for the Kings, which makes you wonder if Vegas would bite. (ESPN)

— The statistics don’t look good for the slumping Detroit Red Wings. “Particularly alarming has been their inability to generate shots, a category in which they currently sit 30th in the league. They’re 26th in overall shot share as a result, sandwiched between the Senators and Canucks, and in a rather unfamiliar neighborhood.” Indeed, the playoff streak may be coming to an end in the Motor City. (Sportsnet)

— Todd McLellan on coaching Connor McDavid: “I think coaching a superstar from the start of his career is probably a little easier than taking a job where your team’s superstar has already been in the league for seven or eight years and he’s in his prime and you have to figure him out. We’re growing together as a team, a coaching staff and a superstar.” An interesting remark, and probably a fair bit of truth to it. Recall all the hand-wringing when new coaches have taken over the Penguins with Sidney Crosby and especially the Capitals with Alex Ovechkin. (CBC.ca)

— Remember the name Cale Makar, who’s making quite an impression with the Brooks Bandits of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. Some believe the 18-year-old defenseman should have been invited to Team Canada’s World Juniors camp. Makar was not draft-eligible in 2016. Where he’s selected in 2017 remains to be seen, but one NHL scout said he “has skill that could make him best defenseman in North America for the draft.” (TSN)

Enjoy the games!

The Panthers need to ignore the noise and just start winning

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Whatever’s happening behind the scenes of the Florida Panthers — and there are varying accounts, to be sure — the only real solution for this team is to start winning some hockey games.

Keep losing and the criticism will continue, whether it’s fair or not. The Panthers do things their own way, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But when a team that hasn’t won a playoff series in a couple of decades starts talking about winning “multiple Stanley Cups,” there are bound to be people who hope that team fails.

This is also what happens when a team that used to be ignored starts getting more league-wide attention. The Panthers are doing some interesting things. They are going out on a limb with analytics, and more and more people are watching to see how they fare. Some want them to succeed. But again, others want them to fall flat on their faces.

When the Panthers fired Gerard Gallant, it became “a PR nightmare” after photos emerged showing the ex-coach taking a taxi in Carolina. A few days later, Gallant said things were “getting blown out of proportion,” but by then, the damage had been done. That the team has continued to lose under interim coach Tom Rowe has only brightened the spotlight.

Read more: A ‘philosophical divide’ led to Gallant firing

Then came yesterday’s report that Dale Tallon was back in charge of hockey ops. The Panthers fired back, saying he’s never not been in charge.

That, in turn, led to Bob McKenzie’s radio rant today, during which the widely respected TSN/NBC insider said, “Technically, nothing has changed in Florida. Everybody’s got the same title. They’re going out of their way now to say nothing has happened. I will tell you what happened. After the game the other night, where they lost, and lost badly, and Roberto Luongo smashed his stick on the boards and threw a tantrum as he went off the ice, and Tom Rowe threw a tantrum on the bench, and that put them to 2-3-3, seven points out of a possible 16 since they fired head coach Gerard Gallant, we do know that the owner, Vinnie Viola, met with Dale Tallon the next morning and immediately following that, there was certainly word out in the NHL community that, whatever role Dale had before, that there may have been some added responsibility.”

For the players, it’s all a bunch of unwelcome noise. They’ve got enough on their plates, what with being five points back of a playoff spot. The way the top five teams in the Metropolitan are rolling, it looks like only three Atlantic teams are going to make the postseason. Montreal’s already got a nice cushion, which could leave only two spots for Ottawa, Boston, Tampa Bay, Florida, Detroit, Toronto, and Buffalo to grab. So whatever happens, there are going to be some very noteworthy teams that miss the playoffs this year.

Looking ahead, the Panthers play tonight in Winnipeg against a Jets team that should be rested and ready to go. Tomorrow they’re in Colorado, where the Avalanche continue to flounder. After that, Florida returns home for five huge divisional games with Buffalo, Boston, Detroit, Toronto, and Montreal.

When all’s said and done, these next seven games could very well determine whether the Panthers make or miss the playoffs. And we can only imagine the fallout if they miss.

Letang out a ‘couple of weeks’ with lower-body injury

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Kris Letang is hurt again. The Penguins’ best defenseman will miss “a couple of weeks” with a lower-body injury, according to head coach Mike Sullivan.

Letang logged 26:23 of ice time in last night’s 4-3 OT victory over the Bruins. It’s not clear how he got injured, though he did take a hit from David Backes that could’ve caused the issue.

With no Letang, expect to see Justin Schultz‘s role increase over the next two weeks. It may also be an opportunity for young Derrick Pouliot, who’s currently in the AHL with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Steve Oleksy was a healthy scratch versus Boston, so the Penguins do have six healthy defensemen, even without Letang.

The Pens have five games before the Christmas break, starting Friday when they host Los Angeles.

Letang missed five games in October with an upper-body injury. Pittsburgh went 4-1-0 without him.

Related: Pouliot’s goal is to become ‘full-time player’ for Penguins

The Jets are finally rested, and it’s time to start winning

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Fatigue can’t be an excuse anymore. The Winnipeg Jets have had three days off. Starting tonight against Florida, they really need to put some wins together.

The Jets (13-16-3) started the season in grueling fashion, with 32 games in 60 days. By the mid-point of November, it began to show. They went 4-9-1 from Nov. 17 to Dec. 11, making them the NHL’s worst team over that stretch.

“Sometimes you’d dig into the bank and there’s nothing left in there,” said forward Blake Wheeler, per the Winnipeg Free Press. “That’s kind of a bad feeling. You normally have that reserve to tap into and to have that gone on a given night, that makes it tough… There’s obviously an element of mental fatigue that goes with the travel and everything but the physical burden can sometimes be more challenging.”

Looking ahead, Winnipeg plays four times before the Christmas break, and all four games are winnable. Tonight it’s the Panthers at MTS Centre, Sunday the Avalanche pay a visit, then it’s off to Vancouver for a pair of games against the Canucks.

The Jets are only one point back of the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference; however, that’s a little misleading, since they’ve played four more games than the Predators.

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Tonight’s opposition should also be a motivated group, as the Panthers too are fighting to stay in playoff contention. Whoever wins will get a much-needed two points. Whoever loses will fall further back and face more, tougher questions.

Related: Tyler Myers, who’s missed 16 straight, has ‘plateaued’ in recovery