Thursday, April 21, 2011

First season as No. 1 goalie will help Halak going forward

Netminder, coach have clear understanding
where to proceed, help elevate his game

ST. LOUIS -- A year ago at this time, Jaroslav Halak was becoming the toast of Montreal. As a matter of fact, he was becoming the toast of the Province of Quebec.

Halak was in the midst of putting together one of the more impressive runs a goalie could string together in the postseason. Playoff series wins over Alex Ovechkin and the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals and Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins will do that.

All that was missing was a Stanley Cup victory and parade in downtown Montreal.

But when Halak was traded to the Blues last June in a deal that shocked the entire hockey world, the Blues were in the process of giving the Bratislava, Slovakia native the keys to their net and become their full-time, No. 1 goaltender for years to come.

The season began better than advertised for Halak, who opened 8-1-1 with a 1.46 goals-against average, a .944 save percentage and three shutouts in 10 starts. He finished the season 5-1-1 with a 1.42 GAA and a .946 save percentage. It was in between when the Blues were decimated with injuries and they needed their newly anointed No. 1 netminder to step up and "steal" some games. Halak was unable to elevate his game.

Halak was 14-19-9, his GAA was considerably higher at 2.95 in that stretch and his save percentage was considerably lower (.896) in that period from the middle of November to the ladder stages of March.

Halak finished a respectable 27-21-7 with a 2.48 GAA and .910 save percentage. Not too bad considering this was the first time he played more than 45 games in a season.

This first season for Halak, who signed a four-year, $15 million contract soon after his trade to St. Louis, was as much an audition as it was a chance to prolong that magical playoff run of a season ago. Have the Blues finally found stability between the pipes? The jury is still out, but chances are, the process will only get better.

"Being a No. 1, it's a little bit bigger responsibility, but at the same time, it's more fun because you play more," Halak said. "You just want to win every game you play. It's a mental thing and you need to make sure your head is clear for every game. That's the bottom line.

"As far as the physical (portion) goes, I'm fine. I was fine all year long. Obviously, everybody has ups and downs. I had mine. As a team, we went through some ups and downs, but we had a young team. ... We lost guys at key moments and too bad we couldn't recover."

Upon his exit interview, Halak and Blues coach Davis Payne seemed to see eye to eye on all points discussed, which bodes well for both heading into a new year.

"I had a great conversation with Jaro about his year, how he felt it went, where are the areas of concern that we would have, where are the areas of concern that he has and they match up. That's a great starting point."

The numbers Halak put up overall in his first season match up pretty decent. He ranked 18th in the NHL in wins, was 13th in GAA among starting goalies and tied for fourth with seven shutouts. But Halak's greatest challenge this off-season is ramping up his knowledge of the mental grind, of being that player who can hold up for 60-65 games, if called upon.

"It takes time," Payne said. "... There's a learning curve there, there's an understanding of how to get yourself back ready again, how to hit that reset button, whether it's a bad goal, bad period, bad game ... and good period, good save, good game. The reset button still has to get hit.

"I think knowing that you're the No. 1 guy for the first time, there is a learning curve that goes on there."

It's also no coincidence that Halak's numbers against the Eastern Conference and Western Conference were considerably different. Although he didn't play as many games against the East, a familiarity there of being with the Canadiens seemed to help Halak go 7-2-1 with a 1.76 GAA and .940 save percentage while only sporting a 20-19-7 mark against the West and a 2.65 GAA and .908 save percentage.

"I think he recognizes the difference in play between Eastern Conference teams and Western Conference teams in going through the circuit here for the first time ... very, very accurate in what he saw and the adjustments that he needs to make," Payne said of Halak. "... There's a different element when you're trying to play Chicago. There's a different element when you're playing Detroit and how they attack, a different element when you play Vancouver and the other top teams out West.

"There's a number of different areas that he's made clear recognition and we have as well. They match up. We feel that it's going to be a real important year for him as far as strength and conditioning goes because of the workload that he will face. Is he a 60-game guy, a 60-plus game guy? We have to monitor that. These are all questions that we'll get answered here as the summer goes along, but in order for him to hit that number or beyond, the body has to be ready for it, so this is a real important time for Jaro take care of that as well."

Halak made 57 appearances this season but was limited 13 games after sustaining a broken blocker hand in late January. He came back and finished well and will represent Slovakia at the World Championships in his home country at the end of the month.

"I know he's excited about the World Championships and getting to work and making sure that he's prepared," Payne said. "He's excited about how (the season) finished, he obviously liked how it started. He feels that there was more during the middle part of that year -- especially January -- where he could have been sharper. That's a statement you want your No. 1 guy making."

Not making the playoffs after what he went through last season is motivation enough for Halak to come in reenergized for a new season. He made $2.75 million this season and his salary will get bumped up to $3.5 million next season.

"Too bad we couldn't get (to the playoffs)," Halak said. "Overall, the season wasn't probably the best for everybody in this locker room and for me, but it was a learning season. I think I took a lot of good things from this season.

"Everybody goes through ups and downs. No one wants to go through it, but we just need to make sure we will play consistent hockey -- especially me. I need to play on the same level most of the season."

If he does, it bodes well for the Blues.

"Everybody knows in this locker room there is a lot of potential going into next season," Halak said. "I think everybody's excited. ... We need to try and find another level to get to the playoffs."

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