After every St. Louis Blues home game, the cameras and the press head to one person immediately. He’s the guy who scored eight goals in six games, including a hat trick against the Dallas Stars on Oct. 28. He’s also the guy who scored a highlight-reel goal against the New York Rangers on Nov. 3 that has some already calling it “the goal of the year.”
Vladimir Tarasenko has been dazzling NHL media so much so that the press can’t seem to leave him alone. He extended his point streak to six games on Tuesday evening, accumulating two assists in a 6-1 rout of the Buffalo Sabres at Scottrade Center. But he wasn’t the one with the cameras shoved in his face at postgame.
The one who was receiving all the attention was a 26-year-old Finn who had just wrapped up the 14th game of his young NHL career. The reason: he had just scored his first NHL hat trick.
“Tarasenko should be doing my interview this time,” joked Jori Lehtera, with a swarm of media around him. “Vladi!”
The 2014 Finnish Olympian not only scored a natural hat trick (the first Blue since Al MacInnis to do so on Oct. 12, 1998), but he extended a point streak of his own, reaching five consecutive games with at least one point. In fact, the three goals counted for points 12, 13 and 14, making him the third highest scorer on the Blues’ roster.
Lehtera’s first two goals on Tuesday came directly off of drop passes from Tarasenko. The first, scored at 17:08 of the first period, was scored on the rush after Jaden Schwartz and Tarasenko broke into the Sabres’ zone. Schwartz slid it to Tarasenko, who faked a slap shot and left the puck for the trailing Lehtera. His wrist shot beat goaltender Michael Neuvirth over his left shoulder for the 1-0 lead.
His second goal, scored at 3:21 of the second period, was notched in a similar fashion, as Lehtera slid it to Tarasenko at the left faceoff dot. The Russian right winger dropped it back to Lehtera, who one-timed a shot that eluded Neuvirth blocker side.
“Those were like the Soviet Union-style passes he gave me,” Lehtera said. “With him, he can just do whatever (he wants). I’m just going to (trail the play), just in case. When he has the puck, anything can happen.”
His third goal marked the first shorthanded tally of his career. At 14:26 of the third period, Lehtera chipped the puck in from the slot after receiving a pass from Schwartz on a two-on-one. This developed after Schwartz sped past 6-foot-8 Buffalo defenseman Tyler Myers.
“That was a nice pass too,” said Lehtera with a smile. “I just had to put it in. It was pretty easy.”
Until Tuesday’s breakout performance, Lehtera was the man behind the man. Linemate Tarasenko was grabbing all of the headlines with slick moves and calm celebrations after stunning goals. Lehtera was happy to be the set-up man, as he has assisted on four of Tarasenko’s nine goals this season.
This isn’t the first time that Lehtera and Tarasenko have combined forces to wreak havoc on opposing goaltenders. The two played on the same line together with Novosibirsk Sibir of the KHL in 2011-12 and each forward was on a point-per-game pace before Lehtera suffered an injury. The next season, Tarasenko joined the Blues and Lehtera returned to the KHL club.
The Blues’ third-round selection, 65th overall, in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft was a target for Blues general manager Doug Armstrong and head coach Ken Hitchcock for some time. With Lehtera joining Finland at the 2014 Winter Games, Team Canada members Armstrong and Hitchcock were able to see Lehtera’s skill firsthand.
“Lehtera doesn’t get enough credit for how competitive he is,” said Hitchcock after Tuesday’s victory. “I think that the moxy is what impressed me in the Olympics. We watched him very closely in every game and practice. He was their best practice player and he was one of their fiercest competitors in the games.”
Lehtera, who finished the Olympics with four points in six games, met with Armstrong in the dining hall and admitted that he wanted to join the NHL club. This occurred just a few months after declining offers and opting to re-sign in the KHL.
Just 133 days after signing a two-year, $5.5 million contract with St. Louis in July, Lehtera seems to be right where he belongs.
[See related: Signings of Stastny, Lehtera Bolster Blues Offense]
“The game in North America fits him,” said Hitchcock. “He should have come over a year before, quite frankly.”
Lehtera’s teammates surely seem to notice his abilities. Tarasenko is on pace to rack up nearly 50 goals and Schwartz, who inked a two-year, $4.7 million contract extension in September, is second on the team in points (15) and is on pace to record 82 points this season. These numbers are made possible thanks in large part to a guy with minimal NHL experience.
“He’s a hard-working guy,” Schwartz said of Lehtera. “He creates a lot with his work ethic, his stick and his feet and he’s a big reason why our line is scoring right now. He’s also a big reason why (Tarasenko) is having success too.”
He certainly doesn’t look like a rookie, that’s for sure.”
The man behind the mic Tuesday night didn’t seem to mind the pressure that media has been known to put on players. In fact, he rolled with the punches and placed credit to Tarasenko for allowing the hat trick to materialize.
“He wanted me to score today,” Lehtera said of his linemate.
On this chilly November night, St. Louis reporters were not given the typical interview they probably expected.
That’s because Lehtera is not the typical player.