Winter Classic 2017: A Star is Showcased and Optimism is Born

What a way to start 2017, eh?

After slogging through a 2016 that included the Rams bolting for LA, no baseball postseason for the first time in 6 years, and another Blues season ending without a Stanley Cup, the city of St. Louis is clearly in need of a successful 2017 among the two professional teams.

And how about that for a start.

After uncertainty about weather rose over the past few days – the beginning of the game was unofficially delayed nearly 30 minutes because of a rainstorm this morning – the skies held off for St. Louis’ first outdoor game. And just like the name would have you believe, this game truly was a classic.

Now, don’t get me wrong, beating the Chicago Blackhawks is one of the greatest thing in the world just by itself. But in the Winter Classic? In front of a sellout crowd at Busch Stadium? On national television? By a hefty and dominant score line of 4-1?

It just doesn’t get much better.

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Vladimir Tarasenko and Jori Lehtera celebrate the Blues’ 3rd goal. Photo by J.B. Forbes for St. Louis Post-Dispatch

After giving up a bizarre goal just 62 seconds into the game, the Blues settled in and dominated the Blackhawks in front of 46,556 fans, mostly wearing blue – the first time blue has ever significantly outnumbered red at Busch Stadium.

Out-shooting the ‘Hawks 35-22, controlling 64% of the face-offs, and scoring three late goals, the Blues left no doubt about who the better team was today. If it weren’t for a strange bounce on a Michael Kempny shot, Chicago would have been held off the board.

Aside from winning one of the biggest and most important games in franchise history, the Blues played as well today as they have in a long, long time.

This was the first time since December 9th that the Blues have held an opponent under 2 goals, and only the fifth time all season. Jake Allen, badly in need of a good performance, stopped 22 of 23 Chicago shots and looked absolutely fantastic all day. Allen made important saves when he needed to, including a wild glove save on a shot that had deflected up and resembled a pop fly, and never once seemed to be the shaky, uncertain goaltender he has been for the first half of this season.

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Jake Allen makes one of his 22 saves on a Vinnie Hinestroza (#48) shot. Photo by J.B. Forbes for St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The Blues defense was steady and solid all day, allowing only 22 shots, including just 4 shots on Chicago’s 4 power plays, and holding the dynamic Chicago trio of Artemi Panarin, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane to just 5 combined shots. And, while Chicago’s superstars were mostly invisible, St. Louis’ star shone brightest.

Vladimir Tarasenko was the best player on the ice all day long, and it wasn’t even close.

Aside from scoring two 3rd period goals, including the game winner, Tarasenko registered a game high 9 shots in 15:49 of ice time, and was a consistently dominant presence. Every time #91 had the puck on his stick, he was moving forward towards the Chicago net and looking to score.

But, for two periods, he was held off the scoresheet in frustrating fashion. Tarasenko was stopped by Corey Crawford on a 2nd period breakaway, and later rang a shot off the short side goal post. But his persistence was rewarded with two third period goals, and St. Louis star was awarded the game’s first star.

In the words of NBC’s Eddie Olczyk, “Every time Tarasenko touches the puck, this crowd get to the edge of their seats.” That’s not remotely exaggerated, and is a solid representation of the type of player Tarasenko is.

But, up until recently, St. Louis has been the only place able to truly recognize the transcendent talent that our #91 is. We’ve seen him score 40 goals, register 70 points in back to back season, and torment the Blackhawks with 9 goals and 13 points in his last 8 games against Chicago, including scoring 6 goals against the Hawks in the teams’ first round playoff series last year. However, among all of those accomplishments has never been a signature moment; one moment that can be looked back upon as the essence of Vladimir Tarasenko. At least, there hasn’t been a moment that occurred on a big stage.

Until now.

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Vladimir Tarasenko celebrates his 2nd goal of the game. Photo by Christian Gooden for St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Aside from being a spectacle for the city, this game was made for Vladimir Tarasenko. St. Louis’ first outdoor game at Busch Stadium and a division rivalry against the hated Blackhawks on national television, the stage was set for Tarasenko to have his signature moment and ascend into the ranks of the hockey elite.

Scoring the winning goals in the Winter Classic is a pretty special ‘moment’, so consider Tarasenko’s status as a superstar officially validated. He has arrived, and the Blues have arrived with him.

Aside from proving himself as one of the game’s elite players, Vladimir Tarasenko helped provide the Blues and the city of St. Louis with the much needed optimism that I mentioned earlier in this article.

Having played inconsistently up to this point, the Blues finished 2016 on a particularly sour note, getting shut out for the first time this season at the hands of Nashville in an ugly 4-0 home loss. Just three days later, the Blues have utterly dominated the team holding the top spot in the entire western conference, and suddenly things feel different.

I hate to use this cliche, but the Blues haven’t lost yet in 2017, and that feels important for a team and a city coming off a rough year. The Blues had an opportunity to start off their 2017 year on a bright note, and they capitalized on it in an extreme way.

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The Blues salute the home crowd after defeating the Blackhawks 4-1 in the 2017 Winter Classic. Photo by J.B. Forbed for St. Louis Post-Dispatch

This win feels like a launching pad for the Blues, putting their 2016 defensive woes behind them, fully embracing a winning brand of hockey, and maybe finally making that long awaited deep playoff run into June.

The Winter Classic was designed to be a spectacle that would bring the city together and showcase our passion and love for the Blues. What we got a was a dominant division win, a superstar showcase party for Vladimir Tarasenko, and renewed sense of optimism for the year to come.

Let’s just hope the Blues keep it rolling.

Winter Classic 2017: A Star is Showcased and Optimism is Born

Ryan Riffs: St. Louis Blues Game 1

The beginning of any sports season is a unique and fun time. Regardless of what happened during the prior season, there is a renewed and genuine sense of optimism and hope that this could be our year, that this season is going to be one to remember.

Here in St. Louis, we’ve been saying those adages for 50 years now, without fail, every October when a new hockey season rolls around for our beloved Blues. For 50 years we have hoped and yearned and cheered, and for 50 years we have had our hopes dashed, in often extremely painful ways.

But that doesn’t stop us from hoping, and it certainly won’t stop us here in 2016.

Coming off of an appearance in the Western Conference Finals that finally gave Blues fans at least some sort of a taste of playoff glory, however minor and quickly extinguished it may have been and felt. If the world were a perfect place, the Blues would be able to learn from and improve from their deep playoff run, and the 2016-17 season would be dripping with optimism and potential.

But, especially if you’ve been paying attention to the 2016 election, the world is not a perfect place. And, thus, while there is still a sense of optimism about these 2016-17 Blues, we St. Louisans have watched too many seasons of these Blues and become too conditioned to letdowns and failure to buy in too fully.

Is that sad? Yeah, it really is, but that doesn’t mean we will root any less hard or bleed any color other than Blue this winter. To say the least, the Blues look…..different this season.

Gone is the longest tenured Blue and team captain of the last 6 years, David Backes.

Gone is playoff hero and fan favorite Troy Brouwer.

Gone is Brian Elliott, the man who saved the 2015-16 season and delivered year after year of incredible goalkeeping, as underrated and underused as he frustratingly was during his time in St. Louis.

Gone is the poster boy of the ‘grittier’ Blues teams of the past few years, Steve Ott.

Ken Hitchcock, the man behind the bench for the past 5 seasons, is in his last year as coach of the Blues before giving way to Mike Yeo in 2017-18.

In are David Perron, Nail Yakupov, and a much smaller, faster version of the big and bruising Blues that we have become so accustomed to. The Blues, in their own words, will rely on “tempo and tenacity” in hopes of rekindling and improving upon the playoff success they experienced last season.

The Blues are younger, they are faster, they will play an up-tempo game that will focus on dominating possession and getting quick rushed up the ice. It’s new, it’s different, but will it be better?

That’s the question…

……….

WELL THAT WAS FUN, WASN’T IT?!!!!!

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Photo by Kamil Krzaczynski for USA Today

The Blues just beat the Chicago Blackhawks, at the United Center, 5-2; and for at least one night at the very outset of the season, all of our hope and optimism has been rewarded with a wonderfully satisfying win.

Despite giving up the opening goal to a Blackhawks power play unit that looked incredibly dangerous all night long, the Blues battled back to notch two equalizers and eventually pull away in a dominating third period.

Don’t let that 5-2 scoreline fool you, this game was tight and wonderful to watch.

Vladimir Tarasenko, Paul Stastny and Kevin Shattenkirk all tallied 3 points for the Blues, while Richard Panik and rookie Ryan Hartman scored the Blackhawks goals.

……….

As entertaining as this game was, it was actually a very strange contest to watch. Blues-Blackhawks games in the past have made their living by using a recipe that includes a lot of heavy hits, relentlessly physical forechecks, countless post-whistle scrums, gritty net-front battles, and just a general level of physicality and competition that is unmatched by any other rivalry in hockey.

This game was almost a complete about-face from the traditional style of play that is seen in a Chicago-St. Louis game. Both teams mostly lacked the relentless physicality that this rivalry has instead been known for, and this game was all about tempo, pace, and puck possession.

Instead of seeing David Backes and Andrew Shaw brutally battling for position in front of the net, a typical sequence tonight included tight neutral zone passing, a maze of poke checks from aggressive defensemen, and both teams looking to stretch each other horizontally. It was definitely different, and the Blues certainly seemed like the more effective team while implementing this new style.

St. Louis out-shot Chicago 34-19, won 60% of the faceoffs, and tended to dominate possession at times – the possession stats have not been made available from the game yet.

So, while both St. Louis and Chicago had a much different vibe and style to them, St. Louis’ play felt like a good different, while the Blackhawks looked like a shell of their formerly dominant selves.

……….

In my eyes, tonight was about as good as St. Louis could have hoped to look.

For a team that’s trying to develop and adapt to a completely different playing style, the Blues sure looked sharp for long stretches of time. Right off the opening face-off, St. Louis made a clean entry into Chicago’s zone and kept the puck buried in the offensive third for a good minute to minute and a half of solid possession.

There were a lot of really positive things that St. Louis did tonight. So, in no particular order, here they are.

  • The Blues’ power play was spectacular tonight. Capitalizing for 3 goals on 5 Blackhawks’ penalties, St. Louis looked phenomenal tonight with a man advantage. My main gripe with the Blues’ power play in the past has been that the zone entries are inconsistent and that it relies too heavily on a point man to run everything. Tonight, the Blues’ pace and speed helped them create clean zone entries with puck possession and time, and the power play had a much clearer willingness to shoot the puck instead of passing it around incessantly. It was refreshing and effective.
  • Combined with an outstanding power play was the always effective St. Louis penalty kill. Chicago’s power play will suffer this season without the presence of Andrew Shaw causing trouble down in front of the net, but after scoring the opening goal on a power play, Chicago was shut out on the man advantage in their next 3. The St. Louis defense was incredibly effective in forcing Chicago to make rushed passes and causing turnovers, and when the puck was cleared out of the zone, the Blues’ were aggressive in chasing it down and keeping possession in order to kill more time. An always terrific St. Louis penalty kill held its reputation strong tonight.
  • Vladimir Tarasenko led the team in shots on goal! The most dangerous goal scorer wearing the blue note finally decided that he needs to shoot more often, and it resulted in two goals and a constantly threatening presence every single time he touched the puck. Blues fans have long clamored for Tarasenko to be more selfish, which doesn’t mean hog the puck and try to do everything himself, but just shoot more often when the chances arise. Tarasenko was more willing to pull the trigger tonight and look what happened. More of that please.
  • Did anyone else see how aggressive Colton Parayko was in the offensive third? Tarasenko led the Blues with 5 SOG, and Parayko – the Blues’ next great defensemen – was second on the team with 4 SOG. He led rushes, he was a Shea Weber-type threat on the power play, he was a force on the defensive end – making 5 hits and garnering 3 takeaways to only 1 giveaway – and has clearly separated himself into the upper echelon of the Blues’ defense corps. It doesn’t look like Parayko is interesting in suffering through a sophomore slump in his 2nd NHL season.
  • Nail Yakupov possesses the type of speed that can transform a game and I was very impressed with his raw tools tonight. The man can absolutely FLY, and his handles are impressive as well. He does appear to lack ideal finishing ability at the net, but the Blues can absolutely turn him into a weapon. As I said, his speed can transform a game and create chances on chances on chances for his line mates. The Blues have the defensive structure to be able to cover for his liabilities on that end of the ice, so just turn him loose and let him fly all over the offensive end. He’s not a complete player, but if he’s used properly this could add an offensive facet to the Blues that they have never had.

…………

The hockey fire of optimism was already burning brightly in St. Louis following the Cardinals’ absence from the MLB playoffs for the first time since 2010, and tonight’s opener against the Blackhawks did nothing to dim things in any way.

Marching into the home arena of the most hated Blues rival and coming away with a convincing 5-2 win on national television could not feel any better, and the Blues looked as sharp as they probably could have hoped tonight.

Let’s hope they carry that momentum into tomorrow night’s clash against the Minnesota Wild in the team’s home opener in front of a raucous crowd in St. Louis.

Hockey season is back. It’s lit.

Ryan Riffs: St. Louis Blues Game 1