The Blues are hot!
Let’s Roll Four Lines …
What a wonderful way to open the season. The Blues won a mile-high game near the Rocky Mountains in Denver, they cleared old cactuses and won in the Arizona valley, and ventured into the desert to collect more winnings in Las Vegas — the rambling, gambling town that can take your money.
As tours go, the Blues had more fun on the road than Led Zeppelin in the ‘70s. They return to St. Louis with rising confidence and a 3-0 record. After a 2021 season of carnage and attrition, the Blues are refreshed, restored, revitalized and rolling.
It’s only three games, but these curtain-raising, eye-opening 180 minutes of hockey generated a powerfully positive vibe. I don’t care that the 3-0 is a small sample, and I know that the Blues will be living in rinks for six months. But in the tough and perilous Central Division, you need to pile up points as fast as you can. And the Blues got after it early, collecting the maximum six available points.
Starting with Saturday night’s grapple against the Los Angeles Kings, the homecoming Blues will play their next four games at Enterprise Center.
The objective: don’t kill your own buzz, Blues. Last season coach Craig Berube’s battered band wobbled to a 12-11-5 record that was tied for 21st in the NHL in home points-collected percentage, .518. Take back your home ice in 2021-2022.
Vladimir Tarasenko is no longer feeling blue — but he is a Blue. After a simmering summer of controversy that had everyone sweating except Blues GM Doug Armstrong, Tarasenko is competing with a stronger body and a clearer head. He transitioned from making a trade demand to demanding more of himself. Instead of taking shots at the Blues through his agent, he’s blasting shots at opposing goaltenders. His shoulder is fine — and he’s shouldering his responsibility to a team that’s paying him $7.5 million this season to score goals and give a damn.
Tarasenko seems very happy. And why not? Instead of being a sad man staring into the depths of the Volga River near his hometown in Russia, Tarasenko has returned to St. Louis to redeem his reputation and reestablish respect and trust with his teammates.
In Wednesday’s 3-1 victory in Vegas, Tarasenko triggered 11 total shot attempts, put seven of those darts on goal, and summoned a timely game-winning score from his past.
He pumped his legs and stayed busy all over the ice. He had a predatory attitude. He was after something. He was chasing something. He was searching for something. He was pursuing the younger and wider version of himself. Vladimir Tarasenko wanted to be the real Vladimir Tarasenko again.
And moments after scoring the biggest goal of the game, Tarasenko pulled away from the celebratory group hug with teammates to confront former teammate Alex Pietrangelo. Petro had some unpleasantries going with the Blues Brayden Schenn, and Tarasenko arrived on the scene with considerable urgency.
Who WAS that man?
“Well, he had an excellent game,” Blues coach Craig Berube said. “I think he had seven shots on net, scored a big goal. For me, it was his attack, his skating, taking people wide, jumping into holes, strong on the puck. All the things that he’s capable of doing, he did tonight.”
Tarasenko made a poor pass that cost the Blues in the first game at Denver, but he’s been sharp since then. In Tarasenko’s overall 40 minutes and 40 seconds of ice time so far, the Blues have controlled 58 percent of the shots, 57 percent of the scoring chances, and outscored opponents 3-1. He leads the Blues with 15 shots on goal and four rebounds created. He’s put his body into blocking shots (4) and landing hits (3.)
Tarasenko averaged 9.6 shots on goal per 60 minutes (all situations) last year, and 9.33 shots per 60 two seasons ago. Through the first three games this season, he’s averaged 18.8 shots per 60 minutes.
“I think all the forwards have the mindset to attack, but I need to find ways to put more pucks in,” Tarasenko said.
Otherwise, he’s in a smiley-face mood.
“It’s nice to play the game,” Tarasenko said. “I missed a lot of time. I enjoy my time out there with the guys. Goals are nice, wins are nice. Guys make great plays. But like I said, there’s ways to improve my game and improve our team game, so we’ll focus on this more.”
How important is Tarasenko to the Blues’ success? Since Tarasenko made his NHL debut with the Blues in 2013, the team is 135-49 when he scores at least one goal in a regular-season game. And the Blues are 187-163 when he doesn’t score.
Or to put it another way:
— 73.3 winning percentage when Tarasenko scores.
— 53.4 winning percentage when he doesn’t score.
Hey, Jordan Binnington looks really good. Hardly a revelation, but the Blues wouldn’t be 3-0 without Binnington’s cosmic presence in goal.
While it’s true that the Blues are undefeated, they haven’t necessarily been the best team playing at five-on-five.
Through three contests, the Blues have only 46.5 percent of the total shots directed at the net during a game. They are at a slight deficit in shots on goal, with a 49% share — but had only 42 percent of the shots on goal at Colorado, and 45% of the shots on goal at Vegas. The Blues are about even with opponents in scoring chances and high-danger shots.
Binnington has provided strong backing for his teammates when they’re wandering into lapses. His five-on-five percentage is a stellar .939. He has a terrific high–danger save rate of 88 percent.
Binnington has been at his best when the games are tight. In situations where the Blues are up by a goal or down by a goal at five-on-five, Binnington’s .966 save percentage is the best in the NHL. His overall save percentage during these one-goal margin scenarios is .957, which ranks second. Binnington has stopped 14 of 15 high-danger shots at five-on-five in one-goal situations — and stopped 16 of 18 overall in those situations.
Binnington’s performance goes a long way in explaining why the Blues have outscored opponents 11-5 at five-on-five and 5-3 on high-danger shots at five-on-five.
And when the Blues are within one goal of an opponent — up or down — so far, they’ve scored 10 of the 13 goals in one-goal situations. Money.
RANDOM BLUE NOTES
Let’s have a look at some things that interest me — and hopefully interest you.
— The line of Ivan Barbashev, Robert Thomas and Tarasenko has played the second-highest number of minutes at even strength so far. And at five-on-five the Blues have controlled 52 percent of the shots on goal with the line on the ice at five-on-five — with an impressive expected goals rate of 58.2 percent.
— If we use possession-and-shots metrics as our guide, the Blues’ most effective defense pairing so far is Robert Bortuzzo and Jake Walman. Granted, much of this depends on how they’re used — and the quality of the opposing-team personnel when they’re on the ice. But in 25 minutes at five-on-five play with the Bortuzzo and Walman pairing, the Blues have controlled 65 percent of the shots attempted, 82% of the shots on goal, 75% of the scoring chances and 72% of the high-danger shots.
— Among NHL players age 23 or younger, Jordan Kyrou has the most points (7) and assists (5) so far this season and is a plus 6.
— The Blues are averaging 5.0 goals per game, second in the NHL to Philadelphia’s average of 5.3 goals.
— Binnington on Tarasenko: “Just happy for him. He’s been working so hard and has been through a lot. It’s really nice to see him get rewarded. Can’t say enough about that guy and his work ethic. We’re all happy for him. Hopefully there’s more to come. In the third period, tie game, it was nice to see the goal go in and even nicer to see Vladi get rewarded.”
— Tarasenko on Tarasenko: “I think everybody play well,” Tarasenko said. “We play well as a line. We play for a couple games now. We try to learn where each other is going. We have a lot of scoring chances. We have to find ways to score more goals, but obviously it’s a great game. It’s always hard to play in this building, but also it’s very exciting games, a good atmosphere and a very hard team to play against. I think mentally good for a win and it’s a great road trip for us. We’re ready to go home.”
Thanks for reading …
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* All stats used here are sourced from Hockey Reference or Natural Stat Trick.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.