Vladimir Tarasenko remembers the first time that he began to take real notice of fellow Russian Alexander Ovechkin.
“First time? Olympics in Turin,” Tarasenko said, referring to the 2006 Winter Games in Italy. “I never really followed somebody ... because my hockey idol was my father. But I remember when (Ovechkin) won first awards in NHL his first couple of years.”
Ovechkin scored five goals in eight games for Russia at the Turin Olympics, following it up with a 52-goal rookie season in the NHL. He won the Calder Trophy as the league’s rookie of the year and even earned a few Hart Trophy votes as the MVP.
Over the last decade, Ovechkin has scored more than 400 goals and 800 points in a little less than 700 games. He’s now won the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy as the league’s top goal-scorer four times and the Hart Trophy three times.
“To me, Ovechkin is a generational player ... he’s a guy that to me you pay to go watch,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. “We’re hoping that Vladi gets to that level, where people come from all over the world to come and watch this guy play hockey. For years Ovechkin has been must-see TV, and we’re hoping that Vladi can get to that level, too.”
Those are certainly lofty expectations being placed on Tarasenko, but in his third season in the NHL, the right winger is showing signs of superstardom. He has 10 goals and 21 points in 16 games this season, ranking No. 3 in the NHL in both categories.
A couple of highlight-reel goals have caught the attention of many, including Ovechkin himself, who will be in town tonight to see Tarasenko first-hand when the Washington Capitals play the Blues at 7 p.m. at Scottrade Center.
“He’s showing right now his skill,” Ovechkin told the Post-Dispatch this week. “You can see how he scored the goal against the Rangers and everybody is talking about it. He beat probably two defensemen. It’s always going to be in his memory and it’s a highlight goal. He’s a great passer and great skater as well.
“I’m really happy for him because he was kind of a little bit struggling in his career, but right now you can see how much he’s growing up. He just make great jump in his career and he’s carrying the team right now.”
Ovechkin, 29, remembers the first time he began to take real notice of Tarasenko, 22.
It was when Tarasenko was a member of Russia’s World Junior rosters — first in 2009 when Tarasenko scored eight goals in seven games and led the country to a silver medal at the Under-18 championships and again in 2011 when he netted four goals in seven games and helped the club capture gold at the Under-20 tournament.
“In Russia, if you’re playing well, all the newspapers, they start talking about players and the name,” said Ovechkin, who would go on to play with Tarasenko at the 2011 World Championships and the most recent Olympics in Sochi, Russia. “Right away, I tell him, ‘You’re going to be a great player.’ He’s going to have a great future.”
It’s a future that because of Tarasenko’s Russian heritage and high skill level has often been compared to Ovechkin’s, a compliment in any language. While respectful, Tarasenko played down the link, citing the advice of his grandfather, Vladimir, and father, Andrei.
“They tell me, ‘You can be like second Alex Ovechkin or second (Evgeni) Malkin or (Pavel) Datsyuk. They are good players, great guys, but you’re going to try to do your own,’” Tarasenko said. “If somebody look at you, they will say, ‘Yeah, this is Vladimir’ and not somebody else. That’s what they teach me when I was growing up. You need to work harder every day to fight for your last name. Not try to be somebody’s copy.”
Tarasenko is out to prove that he’s an original. He possesses a bubbly personality, a penchant for playing defense, and despite being in a hot streak that has produced 16 points (nine goals, seven assists) in his last nine games, he is not wrapped up in it.
“He celebrates other people’s success, which I think endears him to the rest of his teammates,” Hitchcock said.
“He’s a great guy and a good teammate,” Ovechkin said. “I know in the (NHL) lockout, when he played in Russia, everybody only had good words about him, how he is in the locker room, how he supported his teammates.”
Tarasenko admits, though, he’s had his moments.
“I have days when I’m so grumpy, too, you can ask my teammates,” he said. “But this stays in the locker room. If you’re mad in a game, somebody else can see this. That is how we can lose a game. Just try to be a good teammate. If you’re happy for everybody else, it will come to you. If you’re grumpy, and you’re jealous, it’s going to be bad for you later.”
It’s an attitude that may have been reshaped at the Olympics, where Tarasenko’s role for Russia was minimal. He was goal-less with one assist in five games, before the host country bowed out prematurely. Hitchcock has pointed to Tarasenko’s return from Sochi as the axis of his ascension.
“When some stuff happened, and this stuff not so good for the team, you’re going to work harder to show these guys it was wrong,” Tarasenko said. “In Russia, we have some words like ‘Time will be best referee for you.’ That’s what (the Blues) tell me, work harder and show these guys they were wrong. So that’s what I’m doing right now.”
Another aspect of Tarasenko’s game setting him apart is his defense. He is a plus-14 this season and now a plus-35 for his career.
“Every team has like different game styles,” Tarasenko said. “When I move here, to St. Louis, guys who play with Hitchcock, they tell me ‘Hey, he wants you to play defense.’”
That has been an area of guilt for Ovechkin, who was a career-low minus-35 last season. He’s been criticized for his lack of back-checking, but he still remains one of the game’s brightest stars.
Offering his advice to Tarasenko, Ovechkin says: “If you’re mentally ready to make mistakes, if you’re mentally ready to take those kind of pressure on your shoulders, it’s going to be fun. (But) just keep going. Don’t stop. Don’t listen to the media. Don’t listen to the fans. Just keep going. It’s always fun when you get success. But when you make one little mistake, everybody is going to jump on you. Just be yourself and play your game.”
Tarasenko insisted that the pressure is not new to him.
“It was always like this,” he said. “It was good for me because I started playing pro when I was 16. This year is No. 8 in pro hockey, so I can handle the media and some stuff like this. Even if it’ll be a lot of pressure, like last playoffs, I don’t care because I know that I need to work hard. If you have a good game, you can celebrate same night, but next morning you will wake up and forget about it.”
Coming off his sixth multi-point game in his last nine outings, Tarasenko has already put Thursday’s performance past him. When he awakes this morning, he’ll be prepping for a much-anticipated matchup against Ovechkin and the Capitals.
“I can’t wait to play against them in Scottrade Saturday,” Tarasenko said.
“It’s always fun to play against good skilled players,” Ovechkin said. “Hopefully he’s not going to show his skill against us.”