Thursday, February 2, 2012

In both goalies, Hitchcock trusts

Blues coach confident in both Halak, Elliott
down the stretch, will continue to platoon

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When the Blues needed a boost in goal early in the season, Brian Elliott was there to hold down the fort. But of late, Jaroslav Halak, who struggled mightily early in the season, has been more like himself in the last couple months.

And while a lot of teams around the league would love to find one goalie to rely on to get the job done, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock has a pleasant problem on his hands: both his guys are capable on any given night. And given native Neb Bishop's All-Star play in Peoria at the American Hockey League level, the Blues have a plethora of capable netminders.

Although Halak has gotten the majority of the starts in recent weeks, it appears as though the Blues' coach will continue to play both of his guys.

Call them 1a and 1b. And Hitchcock has handled both of them well, being up front and honest with them, giving them notice of when one will play or when the other will get a game. It's kept the mental state of mind of both above the water with a clear picture.
(Getty Images)
After an early-season slump, Jaroslav Halak has been one of the NHL's top
goaltenders since November.

"I just think my experience is what goalies want to know is when they're playing so they can get in a mental routine themselves," Hitchcock said. "If you're going to use two goalies, I don't think anything good happens if you keep a guy out a long time and then expect him to come in without having some kind of routine. Whether the guy plays once a week or once every two weeks, as long as he knows he's in that role, then I think you get a much better performance than the guy coming to the rink every day not knowing when he's going to play next or not knowing if it's going to be play today and then we'll see three weeks later. I prefer whatever we're doing to keep both guys included and keep them informed that they're being included; like not leave a guy out there.

"We're lucky because both guys are playing good, but I think having talked to a lot of goalies, the guy that's playing the fewer games wants to still be a part of the team and he wants to be able to play and know when he's playing. It's more about knowing when he's playing. So if you say to a guy, we're going to play you once every 10 days, then he's adjusting accordingly and he's ready to go. I just find it easier to coach that way."

Halak, who will start against the Los Angeles Kings on Friday, has sizzled. After losing to the Kings 3-2 on Nov. 22, Halak went 11-0-3 over his next 14 starts with three shutouts before losing to Detroit 3-1 on Jan. 23.

Halak started the season 1-6 with a 3.53 goals-against average and a poor .835 save percentage, but has since turned it around. He's 14-8-5 with a 2.04 GAA and .918 save percentage on the season.

But there's also Elliott, who is 15-5-2 with a 1.69 GAA and .938 save percentage as a security blanket, which was utilized quite well in the early going. Elliott was the Blues' lone all-star this season and has been among the league leaders in multiple categories.

The tandem has allowed an NHL-low 96 goals -- including a league low 57 in 5-on-5 situations -- with the New York Rangers and they are tied with the Rangers at 1.96 goals-allowed per game. They lead the NHL with nine shutouts.

With 33 games remaining on their schedule, the easy question to ask is who would get the bulk of the games heading into the home stretch. The logical answer would be Halak, since he is the proverbial No. 1. But Hitchcock feels both have taken a grip on the job at hand and will continue with a goalie-by-committee.

"I think they've both grabbed it," Hitchcock said. "For everything that's been here, they are the story. Two guys are the story for me. They're the guys who have given us a chance every night. They've made big saves at the right time.

"I feel like we've been living this fine line for a long time, and we've been on the right side of it. But if you look at the games, even when we've outplayed teams, there's been a big save at the right time that kept it tied and then we've come back and won the hockey game. I think those guys have put in yeoman's work and they deserve a lot of credit for what's happened here for us."

Which is why neither goalie has raised a big issue out of who plays and who doesn't. Both have pushed each other -- Elliott certainly has pushed Halak into form with his strong play -- and both support one another.

"I know he has a plan for us," Halak said of Hitchcock. "Right now, we are going back-to-back, so I am pretty sure we'll get one each and then we'll go from there.

"Obviously I'm going to try to do my best. We'll see how it goes. If coach sees we have a better chance to win with Ells or me, if he's going to go with either of us, I'm a good teammate. Obviously I would love to play, but if that's not the case, I'll be supporting the teammates. I just want to get to the playoffs. We are in a great spot and we can't let that slip away."

The Blues' 33 games will be compressed into 64 days to end the regular season. To ask one guy to carry the bulk of the work on that schedule is a difficult chore in itself. But having two guys stay fresh keeps them motivated and in all likelihood, keeps them in good shape heading towards the playoffs without signs of fatigue.
(Getty Images)
Brian Elliott earned his first All-Star berth with his stellar play for the
Blues this season. He and Jaroslav Halak have formed quite a 1-2 punch.

"Whenever you have a schedule like that, that's key," Elliott said. "You have to keep yourself sharp if you're not in. You never know when you're going to be needed or something happens. You just have to be ready every time.

"It's no different than any other part of the season, but when it comes down to crunch time here and points are important, that's when you really have to be focused and be on your game."

Added Halak: "I think we have (33) games left and I would love to play as much as I can. I'm not saying all the games because it's not easy. We have back-to-backs and it appears every second day, we have a game. You always want to have fresh goalies and that's the case right now.

"Coach knows what he's doing. He's done it. We'll see what he goes with."

And trusting both guys is the way to go.

"Keeping both engaged is equally important," Hitchcock said. "I think both guys have to stay engaged. They've both earned the right to stay engaged. Both guys have had very good years, and they've earned the right to stay engaged here. That's why I let the guys know the day before or whatever, we talk about it as a coaching staff. Sometimes it's who an opponent is.

"It's obvious Brian would like to play in Ottawa (Tuesday). I think that's fair. So we'll just see it from there. Those are things you have to think about. One of the reasons you're able to think like that is you're able to trust both guys. There's a good relationship between both guys and there's a good relationship between the coaching staff and both goalies."

Which adds up to a winning atmosphere.

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