Vegas Golden Knights: Return of Russian star makes St. Louis huge threat in West

The Vegas Golden Knights should be wary of Vladimir Tarasenko and the St. Louis Blues.

There is no doubt that the reigning Stanley Cup Champions will be the toughest obstacle in the Western Conference during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, along with the Vegas Golden Knights.

In stark comparison to last year, when they recovered superbly from a train wreck of a start, the Blues have been a formidable juggernaut all season and they sat atop the Western Conference prior to the NHL going on pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

They will have to beat the Golden Knights, the Dallas Stars and the Colorado Avalanche in the three-game round-robin tournament in order to hang onto the top seed heading into the Playoffs, but they will have one significant advantage.

Step forward Vladimir Tarasenko.

The Russian superstar missed the majority of the 2019-20 regular season after undergoing surgery to repair a left shoulder that was damaged during a 5-2 win against the LA Kings on Oct. 24, 2019.

He had three goals and seven assists for 10 points in 10 games prior to having his season brought to a shuddering halt, and the crushing loss of a franchise player would have no doubt crippled other teams.

However, and as they proved during their run to Stanley Cup glory in 2018-19, the Blues are made of tough stuff and they hardly missed a beat in Tarasenko’s absence.

And that’s why they will be the biggest hurdle standing in between the Golden Knights and the Stanley Cup this season.

Boasting a stellar 42-19-10 record prior to the pause, the Blues were among the leading contenders to lift the greatest prize in all of sports.

Led in points by Ryan O’Reilly (61) and former Golden Knights winger David Perron (60), St. Louis will now get back one of the purest snipers in the game of hockey.

Granted, most if not all of the teams that will compete in the postseason should hockey return this year will be able to boast fully-healthy rosters thanks to the extended hiatus.

However, very few franchises will be getting a player back boasting the pedigree and the resume of Tarasenko, who has been back on the ice rehabbing hard since April.

With the benefit of a Training Camp coupled with exhibition games, the Blues will receive the rich reward of a fully healthy Tarasenko, who could be at the peak of his powers, or near to, by the time the traditional 16-team Stanley Cup Playoffs get underway.

That is bad news for the rest of the NHL.

And it is very bad news for the Golden Knights who will probably have to get past the Blues if they are to achieve their ultimate goal this year.

They will have to do it more than once, too.

With the NHL bowing down to the players and opting to reseed after each round, the three-game, in-conference round-robin tournament will take on even more importance for the top seeds.

William Karlsson #71 of the Vegas Golden Knights skates with the puck against Robert Bortuzzo #41 of the St. Louis Blues.

William Karlsson #71 of the Vegas Golden Knights skates with the puck against Robert Bortuzzo #41 of the St. Louis Blues. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Currently the third seed, the Golden Knights will have the opportunity to steal the top seed by taking down the Blues, the Avalanche and the Stars.

It will be a tough task but the rewards are rich and substantial.

For starters, emerging out of the round-robin tournament as the top seed would guarantee home-ice advantage (for what that will be worth this year) through the Conference Finals, while it would also ensure easier matchups in the first couple of rounds.

But, forgetting the Avalanche who have a widely-talented roster and the Stars who are stacked with experience, the Golden Knights don’t match up well against this loaded Blues squad.

Yes, they did beat St. Louis twice in overtime during the 2019-20 regular season, both games were absolute doozies, but the Knights have never beaten the Blues in regulation in franchise history.

That may not matter when it comes to just one game in the round-robin tournament, but it will prove to be a problem or a factor during a best-of-seven series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Again, if the Golden Knights and the Blues are to meet in the postseason, then it will likely come in the Western Conference Final.

While it boasts all the ingredients needed to make it an absolute mouthwatering matchup, it also paints a rather grim outlook for the Golden Knights and their hopes of winning a championship.

When you add Tarasenko to the mix, who has 428 points (214 goals, 214 assists) in 507 career regular season games and 49 points (33 goals, 16 assists) in 70 career postseason outings, then you have just made a formidable force even greater.

Vladimir Tarasenko #91 of the St. Louis Blues celebrates his first period goal against the Boston Bruins in Game Two of the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Final.

Vladimir Tarasenko #91 of the St. Louis Blues celebrates his first period goal against the Boston Bruins in Game Two of the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Final. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

While Vegas boasts one of the most talented rosters in the entire NHL, the Blues were one of the best teams in hockey without Tarasenko on the ice.

Now they are getting back one of the deadliest and most talented wingers in the National Hockey League, who won’t have as much wear on this body this year having had extended time to recover and get back to full health.

Plus, as an added caveat, while the 28-year-old has averaged around just 0.7 Points Per Game in the postseason, he’s known to be a fast starter with 68 points in 71 career games played in the month of October.

So, with that in mind, it is feasible to predict that, coming off a lengthy break, well-rested and, arguably, sharper than most, Tarasenko will be an absolute force to be reckoned with in the postseason.

Given that he only played 10 games in 2019-20, the forward is likely going to have plenty of gas in the tank to be able to go the distance should the Blues, as expected, go on a deep run for the second consecutive year.

Therefore, the Vegas Golden Knights will have to prepare to take down the St. Louis Blues once and potentially twice in order to get to the Stanley Cup Final, with the added headache of a healthy Vladimir Tarasenko who will be foaming at the mouth to get back on the ice and make up for lost time.

The return of the Russian superstar makes the Blues the biggest threat to the Golden Knights’ hopes of a parade this year.

And any other team for that matter.