St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock is out of options.
He's pushed just about every button available to him in an effort to light a fire under struggling forward Vladimir Tarasenko. He's cut his ice time. He's given him more ice time. He's managed his lines to get him a favorable matchup. And he's given him a chance to measure up against top lines.
Tarasenko has just one goal in his past six and has yet to score through the first three games of the Western Conference final. He has 10 shots in the series, but has rarely threatened.
When the Blues need him most, their game-breaker is broken.
Sure, he's being checked closely. San Jose always seems to have two defenders on or near him whenever he's on the ice. But Tarasenko's hardly a stranger to tight checking. He saw it in the Chicago series. He saw it against Dallas.
But he's run into a wall against the Sharks. He can barely get a touch, let alone move with the puck.
In the past, especially during his days with the Stars, Hitchcock would have brought out the whip to get a guy like this going. Not anymore. A wiser man these days, he chose to basically let Tarasenko off the hook ... but not in a "he's doing his best" way.
Speaking after Thursday's 3–0 loss to the Sharks, the coach suggested Tarasenko just isn't ready for this type of hockey.
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"The thing that could help him, we can't give him, which is more experience," Hitchcock said. "Can't give it to him. He's learning hard lessons, like any young player. Robby [Fabbri]'s learning it. [Colton] Parayko is learning it. Vladi is learning some really hard lessons.
"The playoffs are for veteran players. The veteran players on both teams have this thing dialed up. As you experience this as a younger player, you're going to have to learn to fight through a lot if you expect to score. We would like him to learn that lesson a day from now, but we're not sure on the timeframe. Some guys never learn it. Some guys can't do it. Some guys learn that lesson and they really become accomplished players, especially scoring players. But he's going to have to fight through everything if he expects to score a goal and contribute offensively.
"There's some days that he's going to end up being an effective player and not even get a point, but he's going to have to have an understanding of what it takes to play at this time of year, in the conference final, with 100% commitment on the other side, and still be an effective player.
"These aren't lessons you can talk to him about. Unfortunately for all of us, you've got to go through it."
It'll be fascinating to see how Tarasenko responds. Will he take it as an affront and re-double his efforts to prove to everyone that he is ready for prime time? Or will he take Hitch's hall pass and slide through the rest of the series as a non-factor?
After potting a career-high 40 goals during the regular season, Tarasenko is on the brink of superstardom. How he plays over the next two (or more) games will determine if he takes that next step or if he has to prove himself all over again next season.