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.

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

Ryan Riffs: Blue Notes

The Kings were on the power play, early in the 1st period, looking for a goal to break open a deadlocked 0-0 game. Los Angeles defenseman Christian Ehrhoff fired a shot from the left point that Blues’ goalie Jake Allen made the initial save with Dustin Brown and Marian Gaborik hacking away at him to try and jam the puck home. Somehow, the puck slid out to Allen’s glove side right to a wide open Anze Kopitar, who had a sure goal.

Except not.

Allen sprawled across his crease like a desperate person trying to keep an already falling vase from hitting the floor. Throwing his glove hand at the puck with everything he had, Allen somehow came up with Kopitar’s wrist shot to deny the Kings what had looked like a sure goal.

Jake Allen's brilliant, sprawling save to rob Anze Kopitar of a surefire goal
Jake Allen’s brilliant, sprawling save to rob Anze Kopitar of a surefire goal

There are a few plays per game that make me say “wow”, but rarely am I truly left speechless by something I see on the ice.

I was completely speechless after what I had just seen.

Following Allen’s unreal save, I thought to myself, “It can’t really get any better than that.” And although I was right, as none of Allen’s saves from there on out against Los Angeles last night were better than the one on Kopitar, Allen made multiple other saves that made me say, “Wow.”

The Blues ended up losing the game 3-0, but don’t let those three goals fool you, Jake Allen played out of his mind, making unbelievable saves to consistently bail out a slacking St. Louis defense. I made the short case last week that the Blues should give Allen the keys to their figurative goalie car by trading Brian Elliott, effectively making Allen the de facto #1 goalie.

Over the course of his last three games, Allen has shut out a terrific Tampa Bay Lightning offense, saved 23 of 24 against Anaheim, and posted his sterling performance against Los Angeles. It’s too early in the season for the number to truly reflect my opinion, but just watching the two of them play, it’s clear that Allen has an extra gear he can switch into that Elliott just doesn’t have.

It might be that Allen’s younger, more athletic, or whatnot; but whatever the reason is, Allen just looks sharper and more confident in between the pipes. So add onto that confidence and give him the keys to the car. Push all the chips to the middle of the table and roll with him. You want a great reward? You have to take a great risk.

…………

I’m as big a fan of Vladimir Tarasenko as you will ever find. I honestly think he is one of the top 5 best all-around players in this league right now. But for all of his offensive brilliance, the league is naturally adjusting to his insane offensive talent.

When Tarasenko is on the ice, other teams certainly know about it and are on high alert. He doesn’t have as much time and space as he used to, and defenses are even putting two skaters on him at all times. Simply put, Tarasenko is being clamped down upon by opposing defenses as they’ve casually realized, “Hey, this #91 guy in blue is pretty good…maybe we should defend him.”

So what does that mean? It means that the Blues offense can’t necessarily run through him anymore.

At times on Tuesday against Los Angeles, it appeared as though the Blues offense was just sort of waiting for Tarasenko to make one of his magical plays and score them a goal. And the Kings, following suit with the rest of the league, weren’t giving Tarasenko any space to work with.

The Blues’ game is to work the puck down below the icing line and get bodies in front of the net. But the thing that really makes the whole ‘bodies to the front of the net’ thing work is that there have to be a lot of shots all flowing on net. And the Blues just aren’t doing enough of that.

Again, the numbers – damn them sometimes – don’t back me up here as the Blues are averaging the 3rd most shots in the league at 31.6 per game. But how many of those are really coming from the Blues’ 5-on-5 system. From my estimation, not many. And that absolutely has to change.

Against the Kings Tuesday night the Blues had quite a few odd man rushes that ended without a shot being put on goal or a very poor shot being put on goal. They just seemed to be waiting for the perfect opportunity to arise to dish out a brilliant pass and create a scoring chance for a teammate.

While all of that is great and necessary to success, more often than not you just need to get the puck on goal. Get a hard shot, make the goalie make a play, don’t wait around for the perfect pass to rear its head and end up with a wasted rush.

…….

As you might be able to tell if you’ve been reading me consistently – and if you have, God bless you – I watch sports with my dad a lot. He and I bonded over them and they mean a lot to us. This doesn’t change with regard to hockey, and we love to watch the Blues together.

On opening night he had a confused look on his face for the majority of the 1st period. When I asked him why he responded with, “I just have no idea who half of these guys are…”

I had followed the Blues’ somewhat busy offseason and training camp well enough to know that there were a lot of new faces; but it really registered with me that opening night just how different this 2015-16 team looks when compared to last year’s team.

So after 12 games, here are my opinions on the newest Blues. For the record, I’m only including players in their first year with the club, while rookies will be addressed on some other occasion.

Kyle Brodziak: Brodziak was a bit of a lowkey pickup by GM Doug Armstrong, but has done a really solid job on Ken Hitchcock’s beloved fourth line so far, flanking Steve Ott and Ryan Reaves. Brodziak brings a physical edge, wins face-offs, and is a really good penalty killer. While the Blues didn’t necessarily need more physicality and grit, Brodziak has been a solid pickup and hopefully can continue to positively impact the club.

Troy Brouwer: I’m really mixed on Brouwer, the main piece the Blues got back in the T.J. Oshie trade with Washington. While he has sneaky speed and back-checks well, Brouwer struggles with his skating at times and makes some passes and plays in the offensive zone that leave me scratching my head. I want to believe that Brouwer just needs more time in the system and will get better acclimated as the season continues, but when I look over at the Capitals and see Oshie playing so well it’s a little hard to swallow that Brouwer was the best we could do for him. But I’m willing to give it more time; a lot more time actually.

Scott Gomez: Of all of their new acquisitions I’ve actually been most impressed with Gomez. A terrific player in New Jersey for many years, Gomez came to St. Louis on a low risk deal that didn’t really give him much of a real chance to make the opening night roster. Regardless, Gomez has played very well so far. He is an outstanding puck possession player, has a very good set of hands, makes plays in the offensive zone, and is another good back-checker. A quality, veteran 3rd or 4th line option, Gomez has played really well and hopefully can continue what he’s got going.

Scottie Upshall: I’m really not quite sure what to make of Upshall, to be honest with you. He is obviously a role player, and isn’t really well integrated into the offensive or defensive structure and thus isn’t all that noticeable during the games. So, to be honest again, I don’t really have an opinion on Upshall. Get back to me on this one.

………..

Tonight marks this season’s first Blues-Blackhawks matchup, in what has turned into one of the league’s nastiest rivalries. The Blues have looked good so far this season, especially considering the wave of critical injuries they’ve had to deal with; but here in St. Louis there are few potential wins that matter more to us than those over the Blackhawks.

Suffice to say, it is a massive game for both teams, and should be wonderful hockey to watch. Buckle up and enjoy this one tonight, I know I will.

Thanks for reading…

-Ryan

Ryan Riffs: Blue Notes

Ryan Riffs: The Incredible Longevity of Kobe Bryant

Let me take you back to a different world for a second. Twenty years ago, for those deficient at math, was 1995, and as I teased above, the world was a very different place.

The most popular song of the year was ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ by Coolio. The most popular movies were Toy Story and Braveheart. Mel Gibson was still wildly popular and wholesome, and the members of One Direction were still wearing diapers.

Now, why am I bringing up the year 1995? Because it was the year a young kid by the name of Kobe Bryant made his NBA debut straight out of Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Pennsylvania.

Wednesday night, Bryant completed his return from a scary shoulder injury to make his 2015 season debut and become the first player in NBA history to play 20 consecutive seasons with the same franchise.

I just want you guys to let that number sink in for a second. Twenty years going to work for the same employer is pretty remarkable in and of itself; but particularly in the NBA, where rosters are small and extremely competitive, money is king, and even Michael Jordan couldn’t stay with one team his whole career.

Kobe Bryant has been playing basketball at the professional level for longer than I’ve been alive. In fact, the team his Lakers played Wednesday night had two starters – Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony-Towns – who weren’t even born yet when Kobe made his debut.

And when we start diving into the legacy of Kobe Bryant, one thing really stands out to me.

There are few athletes in the world that are commonly identifiable just by their first name. LeBron James and Tiger Woods immediately come to mind, but their names aren’t nearly as universally recognizable as the name, ‘Kobe’.

Photo by Andrew Bernstein for the LA Times
Photo by Andrew Bernstein for the LA Times

Every little kid that dreams of playing in the NBA has visions of himself as Kobe Bryant at some point or another. ‘Kobe’ has just become a term that is synonymous with tireless work ethic and basketball greatness. And now, I think we should add another word to that list; loyalty.

For all the faults he does have, Kobe Bryant’s fierce loyalty should be revered and looked up to by kids everywhere. Many athletes talk about how loyal they are or how much loyalty matters to them, but none of them can really identify with it on the level Kobe can.

There has never, in 20 years, ever been serious talk of Kobe playing a single game in a jersey that didn’t say, ‘Lakers’ on the front of it. Kobe has remained true to the team that brought him into the league and gave him a chance, he has remained loyal to the hand that feeds him, and that is to be greatly admired.

So again, for all his faults and all his mistakes, Kobe Bryant is a truly special athlete that we have had the great pleasure of enjoying for these past 20 years; and one that will be remembered for far more than just the next 20 years.

…………

Following another brilliant performance at home last night by Jake Allen, the Blues goalie debate rages on. Elliott or Allen? The grizzled and proven vet or the young, talented up and comer?

Following a rough start to the season in which he gave up 3 goals in each of his first 3 starts, Allen has backed up a 27 save shutout over Tampa Bay on Tuesday night with a 23-24 performance in a win against Anaheim last night.

Meanwhile, Brian Elliott hasn’t looked particularly sterling either, sporting a mediocre 2.18 GAA and having been bailed out by a terrific offense so far this season. But with injuries to Paul Stastny, Jaden Schwartz and Kevin Shattenkirk, the Blues’ offense has significantly – and expectedly – slowed in the recent days.

So which goalie does Ken Hitchcock roll with as the primary guy in the coming weeks? Or does he even bother ‘naming’ a #1 goalie and just keeps splitting playing time like he has been?

For my two cents, Allen is the starter and the Blues need to push all their chips to the center of the table on him. He’s younger, more confident, more athletic, and, for my money, won the job down last season’s stretch run and into the playoffs.

Being an elite goalie is as much about confidence as it is about skill level. And over the course of the past 4 or 5 years, the Blues have so poorly treated Brian Elliott that I can’t help but feel his confidence is totally shot and he can never be the borderline elite goalie he once was in St. Louis.

Having Allen, and now Pheonix Copley waiting in the wings, allows the Blues to make Elliott expendable, and I think they owe it to him to give him a fresh start somewhere where he can be the de facto starter.

So put all your chips to the middle of the table with Jake Allen, give him the vote of confidence, and look to deal Elliott to a team in desperate need of good goaltending.

Allen celebrates with forward Vladimir Tarasenko after defeating the Anaheim Ducks Thursday night. Photo by Scott Rovak
Allen celebrates with forward Vladimir Tarasenko after defeating the Anaheim Ducks Thursday night. Photo by Scott Rovak

Offer him to Edmonton, a team in desperate need of a franchise goalie, and see if you can pry away a guy like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who could use a fresh start and might thrive in St. Louis.

Stop trying to please everyone with the goalie situation, there are going to be hurt feelings either way, so you might as well got a solid player back in return for them. Jake Allen should be the guy, see what Brian Elliott can fetch on the open market, and let bygones be bygones. Please and thank you.

…………..

I’ll get into this in greater detail later, but does the NSAC make sense to anyone?

Yesterday, the Nevada State Athletic Commission handed down a two year suspension to Rousimar Palhares for his repeated eye gouges and for not letting go of a submission during his welterweight title fight against Jake Shields at WSOF 22. Palhares has a history of not letting go of submissions, and being a really dirty fighter, so this suspension seems just and Palhares can deal with it.

But, where my questions come in is that this suspension comes about a month after the NSAC handed down a 5 year suspension to Nick Diaz. 5 years?! Holy crap what did he do, kill someone? 5 years is a seriously long suspension.

Nick Diaz got a 5 year suspension for testing positive for marijuana. MARIJUANA, the thing that is now legal where Nick Diaz smoked it.

Diaz is obviously just as confused as the rest of us. Photo by Joshua Hedges
Diaz is obviously just as confused as the rest of us. Photo by Joshua Hedges

I, along with the rest of the MMA community, was absolutely dumbfounded that the NSAC could do this. There was a White House petition made, fighters publicly refusing to fight in Nevada, and even UFC President Dana White called the suspension “so jarring.”

Without going into complete details, smoking weed is virtually harmless. There were no marijuana related deaths in 2014 and I have never in my life heard of marijuana fueled violent acts. Marijuana and MMA just have no connection and aren’t dangerous whatsoever.

Meanwhile, Palhares is deliberately attempting to hurt people, and has in the past. What Palhares is doing in MMA is worthy of a long suspension, and he has gotten his justice.

Palhares held onto an ankle lock on Jake Shields after the referee had told him to stop. Photo by Joshua Hedges
Palhares held onto an ankle lock on Jake Shields after the referee had told him to stop. Photo by Joshua Hedges

But 5 years and a $150,000 fine to Diaz vs 2 years and community service for Palhares just makes absolutely no sense.

Stay tuned tomorrow for my rant on the NSAC, but for now I just ask them to take a long, hard look in the mirror and realize what they’ve done; because it literally makes no sense to anyone and has the look of a vigilante group more than a governing body for sporting events in Nevada.

Thanks for reading…

-Ryan

           

Editor’s note: I apologize for my absence yesterday. At the end of the day I am still a high school student with a lot of other responsibilities, and unfortunately my homework and college applications have to take precedence over my outside writing. So I apologize for my absence yesterday and I will try to be better at balancing my work in the future. Thank you for your unwavering support of me because you are truly the reason that I write. Thank you always for reading me.

Ryan Riffs: The Incredible Longevity of Kobe Bryant