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.
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.
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.
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.
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.