Friend's passing harder than usual to take; netminder rounding back into form
By LOUIE KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Jaroslav Halak came into his second season with the Blues with a full understanding that he would be 'The Guy.' The burden of the goaltending would largely rest squarely on his shoulders.
But an inauspicious start and the stellar play of backup Brian Elliott left many questioning whether Halak could shoulder the load. Questions began to abound if he was worth the risk.
Halak has admitted to playing poorly to start the season, but for many that don't realize, it wasn't just about stepping onto the ice and between the pipes for the Bratislava, Slovakia native. This season had a different and unfortunate beginning to it after Halak lost friend and countryman Pavol Demitra, who died suddenly in a plane crash.
"He was there and the next day, you never see him again," Halak said Wednesday of Demitra. "Obviously it's tough to lose someone like that. He was a great hockey player and great person, husband and father.
"It was tough to accept, but we have to move on. Life goes on. We need to move on and try to make the most of our lives."
The mental anguish of losing his friend played heavily on Halak's mental state of mind. His heart was heavy and saddened. Although he wouldn't use it as an excuse, Halak just needed time to accept his friend was gone.
"He was my teammate and he was just a great person," Halak said of Demitra. "Obviously it was a shock, especially for the people who knew him. Especially for his family, it must be really hard ... for his wife and kids. I feel for them.
"Obviously it's hard when you lose somebody you know or you played with. I'm not saying it could have been us, but you never know, it was a hockey team. It could be anybody. Last night was emotional for everybody, especially for the people who know Pavol and Igor (Korolev)."
Halak seems to have found his game. Even though his last three starts have only produced one win, Halak's numbers say otherwise: a 2.03 goals-against average and .930 save percentage. Since his start against Edmonton Oct. 30, Halak seems to have turned the corner. He stopped 26 shots in a 4-2 loss but prevented the Blues from being embarrassed that night with several high quality scoring chances.
"When you start losing games, your confidence level goes down," said Halak, who is 2-6 with a 2.91 GAA and .879 save percentage. "That's what happened with me. My confidence level was a little bit down.
"Once I got in the Edmonton game, I had been sitting on the bench for about two weeks and I was happy to get a start. ... I was hoping to win the game, but it didn't happen. But I made some nice saves. I wasn't happy with the outcome, but I saw the improvement. Every game since, I've been trying to get better. All it takes is to make some big saves and my confidence level goes up."
Halak continued his improvement in a 2-1 loss at Minnesota Saturday when he stopped 24 shots. It came to a climax with a 29-save effort in Tuesday's 3-0 shutout of Chicago, Halak's 17th career shutout and eighth with the Blues.
Make no mistake about it. Elliott, who is 5-1 with a 1.72 GAA and .941 save percentage, has been a nice story and has helped keep the Blues from the doldrums of the Western Conference while Halak found himself again. But if the Blues are going to be a player in the Western Conference race, they need Halak to be the lead horse.
"We really needed him at critical times in the game (Tuesday)," captain David Backes said. "... He's our starting goalie. We need him to be as good as he can be. Our goalie's got to be our best penalty killer and Jaro was (Tuesday night)."
Added defenseman Barret Jackman, "I thought in Minnesota, he played great. We as a team didn't put the puck in the net and the last three games that Jaro's played, he's played very well."
Halak may not have been good early on, but he was also the victim of goal production. The Blues have averaged 1.5 goals-per-game in his six losses, four in his two victories.
"We finally got some goal production (for Halak)," Jackman said.
Halak and goalie coach Corey Hirsch sit down after each start and study film, critiquing the bad points and accentuating the good points and go from there. The video sessions seemed to have paid off after seeing Halak playing at the top of the crease, being aggressive and most importantly, playing with confidence.
"I just tried to work hard in practice, tried to get back my game," Halak said. "I've tried to get back on track. I know the last three games, I won only one, but I was feeling better. I was feeling better about my performance. I was happy that guys came through last night. They scored big goals for me."
Halak's slow start may have coincided with the firing of coach Davis Payne on Sunday night and said Tuesday night all players needed to look in the mirror.
"You don't want to see a coaching change ... ever," Halak said. "You can't blame him. Our record was 6-7. Obviously it must have been a tough decision for the organization or management to make. But they had the feeling it was needed.
"Everybody had to look at himself. It starts with myself. If that was the best I had ... it was frustrating because you can play so much better than that. You just play to your potential. ... I'll have some bad starts or bad games, but I just want to play most of the games and do what I can to eliminate the bad games and have good ones."
New coach Ken Hitchcock said all he knew was to throw his top guys in there in his first game and let him go, without much knowledge of what happened in the past.
"I'm starting from Square One," Hitchcock said. "I leave him alone because I don't know a damn thing about what's going on. I'm trusting Hirschy and I'm trusting people that know him.
"I had a long talk with a couple people in the Montreal organization about him that really like him. They felt like if there was a belief system coming from the coach that he could pick his game up, so that's what we'll do."
Hitchcock has historically allowed his starting goalies work out their problems in games as well as practice. He won't put the onus squarely on the goalie playing poor.
"I don't look at it (from the standpoint of), 'Oh, the goalie let goals in,'" Hitchcock said. "I'm a big believer in what (are) the scoring chances you gave up are. I don't believe any goalie can be a good goalie if you give up scoring chances with time. To me, if a goalie lets in goals and you're giving up 2-on-1's, 3-on-2's and breakaways, that's shame on the rest of the players. I look at that first before I evaluate the goaltender.
"The second part for me is I don't like it when the goalie hangs his head. I have a very short leash for hanging your head with anybody. Coming to the bench hanging your head, making a mistake hanging your head, letting in a bad goal hanging your head. So to me, if a goal goes in and he's propped up again, I've got all kinds of time for that type of stuff, but I hate the slumped shoulders and hanging your head. I'm all over that. I can't stand that."
So Halak, who will get the nod again Thursday night when the Blues host Toronto, will continue to make the adjustments, improve his game ... all with the intention of being his best.
"All you can do is do your job and have fun," Halak said. "That's why you play the game. That's why you start playing the game.
"I'll do anything it takes to get back on track and get back my game. It was a great game last night, not only for myself but for the whole team. Obviously I was happy with the outcome, especially with a shutout. It was a team win for sure. Another game tomorrow and it's going to be a big one."