Wednesday, March 13, 2013

(3-14-13) BLUES NOTEBOOK

Team's three-goalie carousel; Oshie doubtful Thursday; Porter excels

By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- It's common for NHL teams to carry three goalies at once when one goalie is ailing physically in one form or another.

But for NHL teams to consistently carry three of them when all are healthy? Well, one might brush it off initially, but when days turn into weeks, one begins to wonder how long can it go on.

This is the dilemma the Blues are faced with as they are currently carrying Jaroslav Halak, Brian Elliott and Jake Allen.

And who's fault is it?

Blame Allen.

Well, sort of.

Not for the wrong reasons but for all the right reasons.

When Allen was recalled from the club's AHL affiliate in Peoria a few weeks ago to help stabilize a goaltending situation gone awry this season with a groin injury Halak suffered on the first day of February, and Elliott's downward spiral in performance, the Blues turned to Allen.

All he's done is match Elliott's record last season (6-1-0) as the best start in franchise history through seven decisions after backstopping 39 shots in a 4-2 win over San Jose Tuesday night.

Halak has since returned from injury 100 percent healthy and has played well for the most part, aside from a hiccup here and there. Elliott has had one start (March 3, a 4-1 loss at Dallas) since Feb. 11.

How long can coach Ken Hitchcock go with carrying three guys? That's the million-dollar question.

"I don't know where this is going to go right now," Hitchcock said Tuesday. "I think a lot of it depends on how Jake plays and how the other guys play. I think it's going to be performance-driven. What was good for us was the play of Jaro the last game (Halak played in Anaheim, a 4-2 defeat). He gave us a real chance to win the hockey game. That's a good sign for us. He was really competitive, he was really hunting the puck and searching for it and working hard side to side, which was really good sign for us. But I don't know where this thing is going to go for us right now. All I know is that Jake's played well, he's given us a chance to win in every hockey game for sure, and you can't dismiss that. If that's the performance that Jaro's going to give us, and hopefully if Ells gets a chance, he gives us a similar performance, now we've got a fighting chance to win hockey games. That's all we're looking for."

Halak sports a 5-3-1 mark with a respectable 2.38 goals-against average but less-than-adequate .881 save percentage. Elliott, despite starting his season 3-1-0 but is in an 0-5-1 funk, is 3-6-1 with a 3.65 GAA and .851 save percentage, but it's Allen that now has wins in six of his seven starts, has a 2.63 GAA and .903 save percentage.

"That's part of learning," Allen said of this time with the Blues. "That's been a big learning curve for me over the last three years in the minors. I've learned a lot, especially those situations. You've got to be ready for everything."

The Blues are able to get by with the current situation since they have a plethora of injuries (Alex Steen, Andy McDonald, Vladimir Tarasenko, Jamie Langenbrunner and now T.J. Oshie) to their roster.

"It becomes a burden if we get healthy," Hitchcock said. "... It becomes a little bit of a burden if we become 100 percent healthy. But I don't know when that's ever going to be to be honest with you.

"I think we have confidence in all three guys, but Jake's the guy who's timing-wise ahead of everybody because he was able to play while the other guys didn't (during the lockout). We've got to pay respect to that just for the balance of this season knowing that wins are going to be tough. It's not going to be easy getting into the playoffs for anybody. You're going to have a lot of good teams not make the playoffs this year."

It's pretty clear what it currently means for Halak and Allen, but where do things stand with Elliott, who's in the first of a two-year contract signed last off-season? Hitchcock likes what's been happening with Elliott and goaltending coach Corey Hirsch.

"I don't think he's off in the equation," Hitchcock said of Elliott. "I think what's on is he looks like a goalie now. He looks normal now. He looks like he did all of last year, but it's taken a little while. There were holes in his game because he didn't play. He didn't have structured practice and there were holes. Herschy and Brian have worked their butts off to get back to where it looks normal now. To me, in the last seven days, it's looked normal. There was a period for about three or four days where we thought it was trending in the right direction, then we watched him and it wasn't. But it looks normal now. He's square, he's not guessing, he's not leaning ... all the things you saw in his game last year, they look like they're back now."

However, it's pretty clear this all comes down to what Allen does when he's thrown into the fire. The Blues have certainly responded, averaging four goals per game in Allen's starts.

"I think that's a little bit based on Jake," Hitchcock said. "How does Jake keep playing? Can he stay at this level? He's a young guy. He's still in the growth stage. Can he stay at this level? You don't know that. I think that's why we've kept it short (term). We've not given anything permanent to him. We've just gone one day at a time, and he's had a great attitude about ... 'every chance I get to play, I want to take advantage of it.' I think we are one day at a time with this stuff. A lot of teams are saying this is like a 24-game playoffs. That's what you're in. You're in a playoff mode. It's who can get the job done for you. There's no long-term perspective looking at things. You're just looking at it day to day. We're trending in the right direction. We've just got to keep building better minutes into our game."

* Oshie update -- The Blues were off Wednesday, as they continue a treacherous schedule that brings Phoenix to town Thursday, but according to the team, Oshie, who was injured midway through the second period, is listed as day to day with an upper-body injury and is doubtful for the game Thursday against the Coyotes.

Oshie, who has five goals and 17 points in 26 games, was injured 8 minutes, 36 seconds into the second period while checking the Sharks' Brent Burns.

No further updates were given by the Blues.

* Home ice swagger -- The Blues got off to a good start to a three-game homestand with a win Tuesday, improving to a mediocre 6-5-1 on Scottrade Center ice.

After having the best record on home ice a season ago (30-6-5), the Blues are looking to re-establish that swagger they carried here, which helped lead to a 109-point season.

"We're trying to get our groove back here on home ice," said winger Chris Stewart, who scored twice Tuesday and now has nine points in five games and 19 points in 16 games. "... To be a good team in this league, you've got to dominate at home. I think we showed that last year. We had that swagger coming into this building, and we knew we can beat (anyone)."

Jumping out of the gate strong might be a good place to start.

"We have to have better starts to our home games and really create some energy in the building and then feed off of it," said defenseman Barret Jackman, who added a pair of assists Tuesday to give him six helpers in five games. "The last five games at home (prior to Tuesday), I think we've really kind of come out sluggish and taken the crowd out of it and not really got that home ice advantage. (Tuesday night), we were good in the first period and the crowd was feeding off of it."

But according to Hitchcock, it's all about living in the moment.

"I don't even look at a homestand," he said. "I had to look twice to even see who we're playing Thursday.

"For me, it's one day at a time, off day, get ready, who can play, who can't play. This is survival now. That's all this is. When you're missing the players we're missing, we've just got to find energy somewhere else. Somebody else has got to play a role. It's just the way it is."

* Porter taking advantage -- One skater who is taking advantage of time lost by injured skaters is winger Chris Porter, who scored a key goal in Tuesday's win over the Sharks.

Porter, who was a tough cut for Hitchcock when the Blues were in the final stages of finalizing their team prior to the season, went to the Rivermen and scored seven goals in 11 games and has energized this team with his play.

"To me, Porter looks like an NHL player right now," Hitchcock said.

"(I've had) a lot of chances in the last few games," Porter said. "Glad to find the back of the net for sure.

"It's a great feeling. You obviously always want to contribute every night, whether it's on the scoreboard or bringing energy to the team. It's obviously a big goal for myself to score. Kind of a monkey off the back."

Porter's play certainly resonates throughout the rest of the team.

"Ports is an unbelievable kid," Jackman said. "He's been in the system, he's worked his butt off to be part of the lineup. Any time he's in there, you get a lot of confidence in him. He's such a hard worker and an energy guy."

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