Jake Guentzel

Blues’ Tarasenko is sniping at Ovechkin-like level during playoffs

The St. Louis Blues are breaking through in the playoffs like never before, but as hot as Vladimir Tarasenko is right now, he’s been clutch for some time now.

After scoring a goal in the Blues’ Game 2 win to extend his personal playoff point streak to eight games, Tarasenko now has a playoff career-high of 10 goals during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. His 15 points during this run matches a career-high from 2015-16, when he scored nine goals and 15 points in 20 games. Even if Tarasenko hits a Zdeno Chara-sized brick wall and slows down during the rest of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, there’s a strong chance that he’ll set a new career-high for points.

Impressive stuff, and Tarasenko isn’t just scoring pretty goals. His Game 2 tally was as gritty as it was pretty:

Tarasenko’s been a reliable 30+ goal scorer during the regular season, as his 33 in 2018-19 gives him five consecutive seasons with at least 30, with 40 from 2015-16 serving as his peak.

Overall, it’s not that shocking that Tarasenko has been a go-to guy for the Blues when they’ve needed playoff goals for years, yet it seems like he raises his game when the stakes get higher. If that’s off the mark, then Tarasenko seemingly doesn’t slow down in the playoffs in the same ways where others find their production stunted by an opponent throwing top defensemen and tough matchups at them every night.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The 27-year-old winger has 32 goals in 65 career playoff games, just a hair under one every other game (.49 per contest).

To give some context, Sportsnet noted after Game 2 that Tarasenko’s .49 goal-per-playoff-game average is the second highest among active NHL players, with only Alex Ovechkin (.51) ranking higher. Perusing other stats really drives the point home that Tarasenko’s been quite the sniping machine in postseason contests.

If you zoom into the Tarasenko’s years, he rises even a bit more. Since 2013-14, Tarasenko’s 32 playoff goals only trails Ovechkin’s 34, and Tarasenko’s goals-per-game during that stretch is marginally higher (.50) than Ovechkin’s (.49). The only players who ranked higher during that time were Jake Guentzel and Mark Scheifele, who scored .59 playoff goals-per-game, via Hockey Reference. You can ding Tarasenko a bit for going without a goal in his lone 2012-13 playoff appearance, but even then, few matched his sniping rate.

An interesting spin-off for this discussion might be power play work.

Heading into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Tarasenko only scored six of his 22 postseason goals on the power play. So far during this run, he’s exactly even: five goals at even-strength, and five on the power play.

Amusingly enough, I’ve repeatedly wondered if the Blues power play would be more effective if Tarasenko was deployed closer to the net, rather than his more frequent spot on the point, and maybe that’s still true. Even so, it’s interesting to see that his power play production has been more potent during this postseason versus previous years. Tarasenko’s already clearly been a menace at five-on-five, yet if he can supplement some of his scoring with work on the man advantage, he’ll be an even more miserable matchup for the Bruins and other opponents.

With greater Blues’ team success, the hockey world has become more aware of the many quality talents in St. Louis. Tarasenko was already a prominent star, yet this run could push him closer to becoming a hockey “household name,” and that’s wonderful, because his clutch play is far from a fluke.

More from the 2019 Stanley Cup Final

Blues-Bruins Game 3 is Saturday night at 8 p.m. ET from Enterprise Center on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Blues vs. Bruins: Three questions about the Stanley Cup Final

Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

1. Will Binnington join ranks of other rookie Cup winners?

Ken Dryden. Matt Murray. Patrick Roy. Cam Ward. Jordan Binnington? If he helps lead the St. Louis Blues to the Stanley Cup title, he will become the fifth rookie goaltender to achieve that feat. We already know about his integral role in the team’s turnaround this season, and his strong play has continued into the postseason.

Binnington has already set the Blues franchise record for wins in a single postseason (12), and if he should win four more, he would be the first rookie in NHL history to win 16 games in a single playoff. A Calder Trophy finalist, he’s posted a .926 even strength save percentage en route to the fourth and final series.

2. Is there any way to slow “The Perfection Line?”

Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak lead the Bruins in scoring and enter the Cup Final coming off a dominant Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final where they combined for eight points against the Carolina Hurricanes. Marchand is up to 18 points this postseason and is sure to surpass his career high of 19 which was set when during the team’s Cup run in 2011. He’s been so productive this spring that he can become the ninth player in franchise history to record a point per game in consecutive playoffs after he tallied 17 points in 12 games last season.

Pastrnak, meanwhile, needs five points to become the fourth active NHLer to record multiple 20-point playoffs before turning 24 years old. The other three are all Pittsburgh Penguins — Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jake Guentzel.

One more point for Bergeron would give him 100 career points and another goal would tie him with Johnny Bucyk for fourth on the Bruins’ all-time playoff goals list. He’s currently the NHL leader with six power play goals this postseason. He’s also three power play markers away from tying the NHL record held by Mike Bossy (1981) and Cam Neely (1991).

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

3. Will special teams be the difference?

The Bruins’ power play has been dominant through three rounds, entering the Cup Final clicking at a 34% success rate. The Blues’ man advantage units have been fine, but are far behind Boston at 19.4%. The Bruins scored at least one power play goal in their four-game sweep in the conference final and tallied seven total against the Hurricanes. St. Louis saw their extra man unit finish the Western Conference Final strong going 5-for-15 over their last four games.

Bergeron leads the Bruins with six power play tallies, while Vladimir Tarasenko is tops for the Blues with five.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Tarasenko getting hot at right time for Blues

It was only a matter of time until Vladimir Tarasenko started to get on a roll for the St. Louis Blues.

Not only has he been the team’s best and most impactful player for the past five years, he has been one of the most dangerous postseason goal-scorers the league has ever seen. As we wrote at the start of the series, he was going to be one of the biggest keys for the Blues in the Western Conference Final against the San Jose Sharks, especially if his puck luck started to change a little bit.

It has definitely changed for the better, and the Blues are greatly benefitting from it.

First, just a reminder as to how good Tarasenko has been in the playoffs during his career. Before this season his 0.50 goals per game average in the playoffs was second among all players that had appeared in at least 40 playoff games since 2010-11 (trailing only Jake Guentzel), and was among the top-20 in NHL history. The only other players in the top-20 that played in the NHL after 2002 are Alex Ovechkin and Mike Cammallerri.

If you want to call him “clutch,” or a “big-game player” that is entirely up to you, but even more than any of that it is really just a matter of him being an outstanding talent that has always been a great finisher. Get him the puck and enough chances, and he is going to score a lot of goals no matter what the situation is.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

That is what made his production through the first two rounds of the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs a little surprising. He was definitely not playing poorly, but his overall numbers were down a little bit, he was relying almost entirely on the power play to score goals (four of his first five goals in the first two rounds were power play goals), and he had yet to record a single assist. Obviously power play goals are worth the same as any other goal, but with penalties and power plays not always being available come playoff time due to the “let them play” mindset that takes over at this time of year, even-strength scoring becomes even more important.

Despite all of that were still plenty of signs that Tarasenko was due to break out. He had 47 shots on goal in 13 games (more than 3.5 per game) and the Blues were dominating the shot attempt and scoring chance numbers at even-strength. He was doing everything right except consistently putting the puck in the back of the net. But when you have an all-world talent like Tarasenko does, it is only a matter of time until those attempts, shots, and chances start to turn into goals.

You might limit players like him for a little bit, but you are not going to be able to shut them down forever.

Starting with Game 1 of the Western Conference Final, Tarasenko’s luck started to turn a bit.

After his three-point effort on Sunday in the Blues’ 5-0 win, a performance that included his nearly unstoppable penalty shot goal in the second period to help put the game away, he is now riding a five-game point streak and has at least one point in every game of the series.

He was probably the Blues’ best player in their Game 2 win when he finished with a game-high six shots on goal and set up Jaden Schwartz‘s goal early in the first period, and then assisted on Tyler Bozak‘s game-winning goal in Game 4 to even the series. He followed that up by playing his best game of the playoffs on Sunday with three points (his second multi-point game of these playoffs) in the win that brought the Blues one game closer to the Stanley Cup Final.

His seven points in the series are two more than any other player on the team while he has been on the ice for nine of the Blues’ 18 goals (literally half of them) in the series.

If the Blues were going to put themselves in a position to win this series — which they have if they can win just one of the next two games — they were going to need Tarasenko to be one of their best and most productive players.

He has been with what has been his best five-game stretch of these playoffs.

The timing could not have been better for the Blues.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Stunning numbers from insane Round 1 of Stanley Cup Playoffs

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Throughout the 2018-19 regular season we took an occasional look at some stunning numbers around the NHL.

We will continue that in the playoffs after each round and start it off today with a look at some truly stunning numbers from what was an insane two weeks of hockey.

Here is what we found.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Tampa Bay’s all-time clunker of a postseason

The Tampa Bay Lightning were the best team in the NHL during the regular season, tying a league record for most wins (62) and finishing with a league-best goal differential of plus-103.

That was more than 40 goals better than the second-best team in the league (Calgary at plus-62).

They followed it up in the playoffs by not winning a single game and getting outscored by a 19-8 margin, including 19-5 after the first period of Game 1.

How unfathomable was that performance? Not only were they first Presidents’ Trophy winning team to ever be swept, but they were also just the second team to ever win at least 50 games in the regular season and then fail to win even a single playoff game. The only other team to suffer that fate was the 2015-16 Chicago Blackhawks who won 50 regular season games and were swept by the Nashville Predators.

The Lightning are also the only team that has ever won at least 55 games and failed to win a playoff game. Just a bad performance all around.

[Related: Lightning have plenty of questions to answer after playoff failure]

Five minutes

Well, five minutes and 51 seconds to be exact.

What does that represent? The amount of time that the Pittsburgh Penguins spent playing with the lead in their Round 1 series against the New York Islanders. Even Tampa Bay had the lead for at least 48 minutes in its series sweep against Columbus.

It almost seems impossible to have that much talent and spend so little time ahead. It is even more astonishing when you realize the Penguins actually scored the first goal in three of the four games. They just immediately gave it right back every single time.

In Game 2 they allowed the game-tying goal just three minutes after Erik Gudbranson scored.

In Game 3 they allowed the tying goal less than a minute after Garrett Wilson scored.

In Game 4 they allowed the tying goal less than 90 seconds after Jake Guentzel scored.

And that was it.

At the other end of the spectrum, no team spent more time playing with the lead in Round 1 than the Vegas Golden Knights, 218:55 ahead of the San Jose Sharks. Boston was the only other team to spend more than 200 minutes ahead. Vegas still lost the series, which also seems hard to believe.

Auston Matthews mostly watches another Game 7

There are a lot of things you can criticize Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock for (not winning anything of significance in nearly a decade being near the top of the list) but his bizarre player usage has to be a big one right now. With the Maple Leafs’ season on the line in Game 7, a game they were trailing for more than 40 minutes, a game where they never had to kill a penalty, their best player saw the ice for only 18 minutes and 48 seconds. There is really no excuse for that, especially when this exact same thing happened a year ago when Matthews played only 18:06 in their Game 7 loss to the same Bruins teams. You are paying this guy more than $10 million per year to be your franchise player, how you do not ride or die with him with your season on the line is a mystery.

Nashville’s power play was a giant zero

Literally, a zero.

The Predators failed to score a power play goal against the Dallas Stars, going 0-for-15 in the six game series. It is only the 11th time in NHL history that a team had at least 15 power play opportunities in the playoffs and did not score a single goal.

This is a big reason they are not moving on, and a big area they will have to address over the summer.

Dallas’ top line dominance 

The other big reason the Stars were able to eliminate the Predators was the play of their top line. This wasn’t just a great series for the Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alexander Radulov trio, it was a complete beat down.

That trio played 50 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time together and put up the following numbers:

Goals for-Goals Against: 5-0
Shot Attempt Share: 56.5 percent (73 for, 56 against)
Scoring Chance Share: 57.6 percent (49 for, 36 against)
High-Danger Scoring Chance Share: 65.0 percent (26 for, 14 against)

Sure makes things easier for everybody else when you have a line doing that to a team.

Warren Foegele, surprising offensive star for Hurricanes

The Hurricanes used a strong defensive effort and a balanced offensive attack to knock out the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals. The surprising offensive star for them was 22-year-old Warren Foegele who scored four goals in the seven games. He did that after scoring just 10 goals during the entire regular season.

1.19 percent

That was the win probability, via MoneyPuck.com, for the San Jose Sharks when they were trailing, 3-0, with less than 10 minutes to play in Game 7 against the Vegas Golden Knights.

It was at that point that everything was flipped upside down when Cody Eakin was given a controversial five-minute major for cross-checking, setting the stage for one of the wildest Game 7s you will ever see.

Brent Burns never seemed to leave the ice

The Sharks have two of the NHL’s best defensemen in Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson, and they both logged a ton of minutes in their Round 1 over the Golden Knights. They were 1-2 in the NHL in time on ice, but Burns was on a level all his own. He averaged more than 30 minutes per game (nearly three minutes more than Karlsson, who was second) and played a total of 213:18. Nobody else in the first round played more than 190. That is a lot of ice time.

PHT’s Round 2 previews
Round 2 schedule, TV info
Questions for the final eight teams
PHT Roundtable
Conn Smythe favorites after Round 1
Blue Jackets vs. Bruins
Hurricanes vs. Islanders
Blues vs. Stars
Avalanche vs. Sharks

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Penguins’ playoff exit was two years in the making

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The Pittsburgh Penguins loss to the New York Islanders was no fluke.

It was a result they earned and was due to them being outplayed and soundly beaten in pretty much every phase of the game by a Islanders team that looked faster, crisper, and smoother.

It was also not the result of something that simply happened overnight.

On the off day between their losses in Games 3 and 4, defender Justin Schultz nailed a big part of the problem when he said this: “Our identity has changed over the years. We play fast and get the puck up quick. That’s what we do best. We haven’t done that this series.”

But when did it change, and more importantly, why did it change?

It has taken the Penguins two years to reach the point where they needed to wait until Game 81 of the regular season to simply make the playoffs, and then could not even scratch out a single win once they got there.

To find when it all began you can probably go back to May 28, 2017.

At the time, the Penguins were the defending Stanley Cup champions and just 24 hours away from beginning another Cup Final series against the Nashville Predators that they would win in six games, becoming the first team in a generation to successfully repeat as champions. Their recipe and identity was clear. They played fast, they didn’t let anything throw them off their game, and coach Mike Sullivan had driven home a “Just Play” mantra that became the calling card of their 2016 championship run. It applied to just about any situation.

An injury to a significant player? Just play.

Don’t like a call that was or was not made on the ice? Just play.

Facing some adversity and down in a series? Just. Play.

In the years between their 2009 and 2016 championships the Penguins had become a deeply flawed team that was short on depth around its superstars and had rapidly developed a tendency to unravel whenever things didn’t go their way. They were almost like petulant children that would lose their composure when calls went against them and become almost infatuated with responding to even the slightest physical altercation. They reached rock bottom in this regard during the 2012 and 2013 postseason losses to the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins when they seemed to be playing a game where hits and responses were worth more than goals.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Starting in 2015, general manager Jim Rutherford started to reshape the team into something different.

He found the right depth players to go around the core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, and he made a series of trades and call-ups from their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to make the team faster and more skilled throughout the lineup. Combined with Sullivan’s mid-season takeover in 2015, it was a perfect storm that allowed them overwhelm opponents and catch fire sometime around February.

They never slowed down on their way to a championship.

While the 2016-17 season wasn’t quite as dominant and had to rely on goaltending a little more in the playoffs, the same formula was still in play.

Despite all of the winning, Rutherford was still unsatisfied with something.

He was unsatisfied with the way his star players were being treated physically. In each of those postseasons the Penguins had to go through opponents that were not shy about targeting their stars. Crosby’s postseason run-ins with Dan Girardi and Marc Staal are well documented, and they had two consecutive postseason encounters with Tom Wilson and the Washington Capitals. In the Eastern Conference Final that season there were several incidents against the Ottawa Senators that drew the team’s ire.

The day before the 2017 Stanley Cup Final began, Rutherford offered a look into where the team was going to be headed when he sounded off in an interview with Ken Campbell of The Hockey News. This is the key part:

“I hear year after year how the league and everyone loves how the Penguins play,” said Penguins GM Jim Rutherford. “‘They play pure hockey and they skate.’ Well, now it’s going to have to change and I feel bad about it, but it’s the only way we can do it. We’re going to have to get one or two guys…and some of these games that should be just good hockey games will turn into a sh—show. We’ll go right back to where we were in the ’70s and it’s really a shame.”

Emphasis added.

“We’re going to have to get one or two guys.”

He doubled down on it just days after the team won the Stanley Cup.

“We are going to try to add a player or two that maybe we can have more protection in our lineup. That’s not that easy because [coach Mike Sullivan] likes to roll four lines and you’ve got to plug a guy in that can play on a regular basis, but hopefully that’s what we can do.”

That was the moment they started down the wrong path. Suddenly, a team that had become defined by playing through things and not responding was going to get “one or two guys” to … respond. The Penguins hadn’t even finished their run at the top of the league as champions when they made the decision to start slowly deviating off of the path that got them there, all in the name of retribution and the misguided idea of “deterrence.”

On draft night that year, the Penguins flipped their first-round pick and center Oskar Sundqvist to the St. Louis Blues for Ryan Reaves and a second-round pick, a trade that has turned out to be a significant loss for the Penguins in more ways than one, and it was a bad idea from the start. Not only did they move back 20 spots in the draft, but Sundqvist has turned into a solid third-line center for the Blues (a position the Penguins spent two years and countless assets trying to fill) while Reaves clearly never fit in with the Penguins’ style of play.

Sullivan barely used him, it shortened the team’s bench, and he was ultimately traded halfway through the season in the massive and complicated deal for Derick Brassard.

The problem with that sequence wasn’t necessarily the trade itself, but what it represented.

What it represented was a philosophical shift from the recipe that worked, and there is nothing that has happened since that trade that has put them back on track.

Pretty much every significant roster move the Penguins have made since then (and there have been A LOT of them) has revolved around getting bigger, stronger players, especially on the blue line where Jamie Oleksiak, Jack Johnson, Erik Gudbranson were the significant additions over the past year. It resulted in a defense that lacks mobility, doesn’t move the puck well, and has simply zapped them of a lot of their transition game. Add that to the departures of forwards like Carl Hagelin and Conor Sheary and the team no longer has the speed and skating advantage that it used to have over its opponents.

The most confusing thing about all of it is the roster construction and many of the moves seem — emphasis on seem — to be at odds with the way the coach has wanted the team to play from the day he arrived behind the bench. I know nothing of the working relationship between Rutherford and Sullivan and whether they remain on the same page as to how the team is built, but the optics of it all just seem strange.

They paid a significant price for Reaves, and the coach didn’t play him. The general manager championed the signing of Johnson all season, and despite playing in all 82 regular season games was deemed to be not worth a roster spot in the first game of the playoffs. A team that wants to play fast and beat teams in transition and with puck possession, suddenly has an inconsistent transition and possession game because the players on the back end can’t make the necessary plays to feed it. And that doesn’t even get into general manager’s fascination with trying to even the score with Wilson in Washington after he knocked Zach Astron-Reese out of the playoffs a year ago (something that ended up getting Oleksiak injured).

Make no mistake, there were other factors at play throughout this season and the playoffs that produced this early exit. The forwards, as a whole, don’t help out enough in the defensive zone. The Islanders did a great job shutting down Crosby and Jake Guentzel. Letang and Schultz, the two defenders on the roster that can still play close to the Penguins’ style, each had a bad series.

But a bad series for individual players happens, and sometimes they are even understandable and defensible because even the best players have bad stretches.

What is not understandable and defensible is willingly taking yourself away from something that worked. That is what the Penguins did, and it is a big part of why their season ended up going the way it did.

The moves they make this summer will tell us a lot as to what they learned from it.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.