St. Louis Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko is the latest star player in the NHL that is having his performance put under the microscope this postseason because of a goal scoring slump. He enters Game 6 of the Western Conference finals on Wednesday night with no goals in the past five games and only one in his past eight.
This comes after he scored 17 goals in his first 27 career postseason games, including six in his first 11 games this year.
This slump, and the criticism coming his way, is largely due to the play of San Jose Sharks defensemen Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun.
As we have discussed repeatedly this postseason, this is not uncommon, especially in the playoffs. Goal scorers are streaky and sometimes the well goes dry and they go a bunch of games without scoring.
Now that Tarasenko has a five-game goal drought for the first time in his postseason career, we could probably add him to this chart.
I know I have beaten this subject into the ground, but ... fight me. Playoff goal scoring isn't easy. pic.twitter.com/xRgT8pfx3b— Adam Gretz (@AGretz) May 16, 2016
When those players do hit one of those cold streaks they usually face harsh criticism for needing to "step up" or play better. Our focus should instead be on figuring out why these guys sometimes go cold. After the Penguins-Capitals second round series in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs we looked at how this sometimes happens in the playoffs, and one of the reasons is that sometimes these guys just run into an opponent that has the right matchup that can work in their favor. The top guys on the other teams get paid a lot of money to make an impact, too.
That brings us to this observation from Comcast Sportsnet Sharks writer Kevin Kurz on Tuesday.
In 17 combined games in the playoffs, Tyler Toffoli, Filip Forsberg and Vladimir Tarasenko have a combined 1G and 1A, -18 rating vs. Sharks— Kevin Kurz (@KKurzCSN) May 24, 2016
That is pretty unbelievable and impressive, and I will add one more player to that list: Predators forward James Neal, who scored two goals in their seven-game series.
Between Toffoli, Neal, Forsberg and Tarasenko that is four 30-goal scorers from the 2015-16 regular season (keep in mind there were only 29 players to top 30 goals this season) and four of the top-17 goal scorers in the league. When it comes to scoring goals, these four players were in the top 2 percent of the league this season. And they have managed just three goals between them (two belong to Neal) in 17 games against the Sharks this postseason. Again, that is stunning.
There is one common denominator in all of their struggles when it comes to scoring goals against the Sharks, and that is the defense pairing of Vlasic and Braun.
Those two players have spent the bulk of the postseason going up against each team's top goal scorer at even-strength. How much time? (Time on ice via Naturalstattrick):
|Player||Marc-Edouard Vlasic||Justin Braun|
|Vladimir Tarasenko||42 minutes (five games)*||40 minutes (five games)*|
|Filip Forsberg||34 minutes (seven games)||35 minutes (seven games)|
|James Neal||73 minutes (seven games)||71 minutes (seven games)|
|Tyler Toffolli||38 minutes (five games)||37 minutes (five games)|
(*series still going)
That is a lot of minutes, and a significant portion of their 5-on-5 ice time. Tarasenko for example has spent close to 60 percent of his even-strength ice time in this series going up against Vlasic and Braun. Neal and Toffoli also spent more time playing against Vlasic and Braun than any other players on the Sharks. Forsberg saw more time against Paul Martin and Brent Burns, but still spent a significant amount of time against this pairing.
What stands out about that even more is that only one of the three goals those players have scored against the Sharks this postseason came against either Vlasic or Braun, and that was a Neal power play goal in Game 4 of the series against a defensive pairing of Justin Braun and Roman Polak.
None of those players scored a goal with Vlasic on the ice. None of them have scored an even strength goal against Vlasic or Braun.
Before this season one of the Sharks' best teams in recent years was the 2013-14 team that is famous for letting a 3-0 series lead slip away in the first round against the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings. The big turning point in that series was when Vlasic was injured early in Game 5 and never played another minute in the series. Without their best defensive player, everything completely fell apart.
When you look at the Sharks it is easy to see a top-heavy team of big name, superstar players like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns. When you have guys that can put up goals and points like they can, players like Vlasic tend to slide under the radar because he is not going to score a ton. But he has consistently been one of the best defensive players in the NHL over the past few years and is an important member of the Sharks' core.
When we think of shutdown defensive players, Vlasic is the guy we should immediately think of. He is not the type of huge body defender that is only capable of standing in front of the net and throwing people around like we used to see as "shutdown" players. He is talented enough to make plays with the puck, join the rush if he has to, contribute in the offensive end, and also go up against the other team's top goal scorer and help keep them off the board.
When you look at the Sharks entering Game 6 on Wednesday being just one win away from reaching their first ever Stanley Cup Final players like Pavelski, Thornton and Burns deserve a ton of credit for scoring the way they have.
Vlasic has been just as important by helping to keep the other team's top scorers almost completely off the scoreboard. Sometimes that is just as good as a goal.