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Benjamin Hochman is a sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Blues face Sharks in game 3

Blues right winger Vladimir Tarasenko gives his stick to 3-year-old Christopher Reinhardt before the start of Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Western Conference finals on Wednesday, May 15, 2019 at Enterprise Center. (Photo by Colter Peterson,

It’s the closest he’s been to a professional championship trophy. It’s as if he could reach out and touch the silver.

But Vladimir Tarasenko sat stoically that August day and didn’t mess with the Wanamaker Trophy.

Last summer, a fellow Russian hockey superstar hung out with the Stanley Cup, and the Blues’ Tarasenko was placed on stage beside a golf award. Tarasenko was asked to join other St. Louis athletes at a pre-PGA Championship presentation — so he sat with the likes of Ozzie Smith, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Mike Shannon and Whitey Herzog.

To think, a summer later, these could be his championship-winning brethren.

To think, a summer later, Tarasenko could be just like Alexander Ovechkin — the best player on the Stanley Cup champions.

It will take elite hockey from Tarasenko. He was sub-par in one game of the Conference finals — Game 1. Against the Boston Bruins in the finals, he might not have a game to spare.

Stare, snipe, score, repeat.

He has the stage.

And after years of being one of the “other” great Russian players, No. 91 has the opportunity and pedigree to ascend. No, he probably never will surpass Washington’s Ovechkin. But if St. Louis wins the Stanley Cup, the two with their toothless smiles can stand side-by-side, champions forever in back-to-back years.

It’ll just take a simple task or two — penetrating a Boston defense that would make Bill Belichick proud and then peppering a goalie who’s playing even better than is Jordan Binnington.

But Tarasenko is playing the best hockey of his career. He gobbled up the Sharks. This is going to be wicked fun.

“I think every time he gets the puck he puts them on edge,” Blues teammate Ryan O’Reilly said. “Having such a shot like he does, teams are scared when he gets the puck and maybe overcompensate for that — and other things become available. Having played with him throughout the year, you see how dangerous he is, whether it’s taking that shot or just being a threat, that opens so much.”

And how about this stat. Since the start of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs, Tarasenko has 30 goals in the postseason, third-most in the National Hockey League (Ovechkin, with 34, is first).

And after tallying three points in the entire, grueling seven-game series against Dallas, Tarasenko finished with eight points in six games against San Jose — including a point in every game. He was the only player, on either team, to do that.

This all happened because No. 91 was vigorously and sometimes viciously engaged (in at least the final five games). He’s one of those athletes who fuels himself by doing the little things.

Sometimes we see a baseball player make a couple strong plays in the field, and sure enough hits a couple line drives in the ensuing at-bats. Well, in the latest series, Tarasenko circled the Sharks. He unleashed body checks, he made hustling backchecks and influenced the forecheck. He finished the series with 16 hits — only three Blues players tallied more.

And as the Blues, with the Campbell Bowl in the bowels of Enterprise Center, tried to set the tone early in Game 6, Tarasenko crashed into Timo Meier. And then, as if to show the hand-passer what he could do, Tarasenko used both hands to violently shove Meier in the face. In the regular season, that would’ve been roughing; in the postseason, that was just rough.

“I think this is the part of the year where points and individual stuff and everything else just goes (away),” said Tarasenko, who is third on the Blues this postseason with 13 points (eight goals, five assists). “We’re just thinking about wins and that’s it. . . . We just keep playing our game, keep playing our brand of hockey.”

And lately, he’s got that shooting rhythm going. It’s a different type of rhythm than a basketball player, who is in the zone if he or she makes numerous jumpers in a game. But it’s the hockey equivalent. About once a game, Tarasenko has sniped a goal in a seemingly small window. It’s as if you can mark him down for one marksman’s shot.

The penalty shot in Game 5 was sublime. And then in Game 6, the clincher, Tarasenko snapped what would be the game-winner above Martin Jones’ shoulder . . . inspiring some on Twitter to spell the “o” in his last name with a dartboard bullseye emoji.

This might sound weird, but he’s at his best when he doesn’t think with the puck on his stick. Yes, of course, you’re perpetually thinking on the ice, puck or not. But we know those moments. He’ll have a chance to shoot and hesitates to create something else. He is, of course, a world-class passer. But if there ever was a time for No. 91 to be selfish and snipe, it’s against a goalie with a goals-against average that looks like an ERA from Pedro Martinez’s heyday.

“He’s got his head up a lot, sees the ice well,” Blues coach Craig Berube said of Tarasenko — it was Berube, after Game 1, who challenge No. 91 to play hungrier. “His hard work is paying off. He’s working hard without the puck, and he’s a powerful guy.”