By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Jaroslav Halak will be the first to admit that the lockout-shortened season has been a challenge, and unusually different for him.
Halak, who will get the nod tonight when the Blues (17-13-2) host the Los Angeles Kings (18-12-2) at 7 p.m. (FSN, KMOX 1120-AM), came into the season as the team's No. 1 netminder after he and Brian Elliott were the backbones to the team's 109-point season a year ago.
Life was good for Halak, but some adversity came back once the season began in mid-January.
"This season has been a weird season for everybody so far," Halak said after Wednesday's optional skate for the Blues, who have dropped three of four games.
Halak, who is 6-4-1 with a 2.12 goals-against average, a .893 save percentage and three shutouts, has been feast or famine throughout his 14 appearances this season, which includes the first time coming in relief, which he did Tuesday night in stopping all 12 shots he faced.
But he will get the keys to the car again tonight, and an opportunity for him to solidify himself as the team's go-to guy in the net will be on display once again. And he's not looking past the Kings.
"We've got to go game by game," Halak said. "There's a game (tonight) and we'll see what happens. ... But we've still got 16 games left. Plenty of points out there for us. We just need to go out there and grab them. We just need to get a streak going, not win one or two games and lose two. We need it. Everybody in the locker room knows it.
"It's not like we're not trying. We're trying to do our best. Some nights it doesn't go our way, but I'm sure everybody's trying their hardest."
Halak, who got off to a horrendous 1-6 start with a 3.37 GAA and .856 save percentage a season ago, rebounded to finish 26-12-7 with a 1.97 GAA, a .926 save percentage and six shutouts after finishing 25-6-7 and a 1.73 GAA and .936 save percentage in his last 39 appearances.
But Halak shared the net with Elliott, and the twosome seemed to mesh well splitting time in goal, culminating with winning the William Jennings Trophy.
This season, the numbers aren't particularly poor -- the save percentage can certainly improve -- but it's been an adjustment.
Halak wasn't able to train during the summer as he was rehabbing the high ankle sprain suffered in the second game of the playoff series against San Jose. He played one game in Germany during the lockout and once the season started, it was up and down at the beginning, and Elliott has fallen off with his game as well. Halak suffered a groin injury in Detroit Feb. 1 and missed roughly three weeks of time and brought up Jake Allen from Peoria to back up Elliott. When Elliott's play began to plummet, and Halak getting pulled from a game against the Kings in the last meeting, general manager Doug Armstrong summoned Allen one hour after that game and the three-headed goalie carousel has been in place since.
Allen has gone 8-3-0, and for the better part of the last six weeks, it's been a three-goalie rotation for the Blues. It's something that's uncommon and with little ice time in between games, Halak has not seen more than 23 shots in any of his 14 appearances this season. Combined with another competitor for ice time between the pipes, it's made the challenge even tougher.
"It's never easy for a goalie to play a game ... six or seven shots after the second period," Halak said. "You never get into a rhythm in a game or in a practice with three goalies out there. It's not the way it's supposed to be. I know this season is short and we're not going to get too much time for practices. Every time you do, it's such an important time for every player and for every goalie to try to do his best and work out there for the little things. It hasn't been easy for anybody so far. Everybody's trying to do the best out of the time we have.
"We've got three goalies in practice, I lost three weeks to my injury. It's not easy for anybody to get into a rhythm and try to do your best. Any time you have a chance to practice hard and work on the little details, they make a big difference at the end of the season."
But asking the players in front of him to compromise is a little difficult when the Blues are playing a solid shutdown game.
"You don't look at the shot clock and go, 'Oh, he hasn't had a shot in a while and let one go by,'" defenseman Barret Jackman said. "You compete every play like you always do. You have to limit the chances and keep it to the outside. Obviously the more games he plays, the more comfortable he's going to be and the more groove he's going to get in. But you don't compromise the way that you play to give him more shots. I've never heard of that in the game of hockey.
"The more pressure there is, the better he is. He's a competitive guy and he loves to win. He wants to be the go-to guy. He's going to get back to that stature and that game. We don't expect him to be that far off. He's been good the last couple outings and we just have to be a more complete team in front of him and it'll all take care of itself."
Teammate Kris Russell, however, can sympathize to a certain degree.
"I think it's a feel thing. I think any goalie wants to feel the puck early," Russell said. "I know if I was in that situation, it would be tough just sitting there watching the play and all of the sudden, have three or four chances on you. But he's a good goalie. We're fortunate we've got three of them. Those guys seem to be good in every situation and we're fortunate for that.
"Our job is to limit their chances and the shots. I think the thing that's been evident is when we do give up an opportunity, it's a big one. We can't do that for our goalies regardless of the situation we're in. As defensemen, as a whole team, we've got to limit those 2-on-1s, those breakaway kind of chances because we are doing a good job of shutting down, we can't let them have an explosive outburst."
Halak had been solid in recent outings, but Jarome Iginla's third-period goal in Calgary that broke a 2-2 tie and ultimately saw the Blues go down 3-2 was one that was seen as a goal that reminded fans of early last season. It was a play in which teammate Wade Redden's sliding attempt saw the veteran slide by Halak, grazing his pad and stick and Iginla score on a sharp angle. Fans were once again calling for Allen.
"Giving up the winning goal in Calgary ... I don't think I made a bad play," Halak said. "Reds, he kind of scooted on my stick so I couldn't really put it out there. When I did, it was too late. Those are the little things. They add up as the games go on, but I have to look ahead, go out, have fun and try to win a game. That's as simple as it is."
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock will go back to Halak tonight against the Kings, and he's comfortable with his play.
"Compete, he's fine. Other than the goal in Calgary, he's played pretty well," Hitchcock said. "That's a goal that probably all of us would like to have back, including the defenseman who had his stick stuck in the pads or whatever, but other than that, he's played pretty well. He played good in Edmonton, came in a relief situation and didn't allow a goal. I think overall, he's been fine."
Some goalies have had little trouble finding their groove in this shortened season. Most of them played regularly overseas and kept sharp. For those that didn't, the adjustment is coming on the fly, something Halak is adapting to, especially when he sees little to no work in the game and practices are limited.
"It's everybody. It's not only me," Halak said. "You ask any goalie out there ... three, four shots a period, that's not the way the game's supposed to be played. You don't get the work in the practice, you don't get the work in the game, then I missed (three) weeks and then I play back-to-back. But I'm here to stop the puck. it's not like I'm not trying or anything, but some nights, it doesn't go our way or my way. If you look around the league, it's not only me or whoever.
"It's not easy always to have eight months away from the game. Everybody was practicing and working out in the gym, but it's not the same. Usually you have three, four months off in the summer and then you're back at it, back playing games, skating with guys. This time, we were just waiting around and trying to catch up after we got back. It was a short training camp. There wasn't much time to work on many things. But this is the way it is. I'm not the only one. We've got 60 goalies in the league, 60-plus. Everybody's in the same group, everybody's trying to do their best and trying to get better."
The situation is what it is, and Halak is focused on looking at tonight and not too far ahead. As long as he focuses on the task at hand, he feels like things will fall back into place.
"You just have to worry about the things you can control," Halak said. "We have a game (tonight). I'll be playing and I'll just try and do my best. We'll see at the end of the night how the result is and we can go from there."
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The Blues announced Thursday afternoon they were sending Elliott to Peoria for a two-game conditioning assignment. Elliott will play games for the Rivermen Friday and Saturday before returning to the parent club.
Elliott last played on March 5 in a reserve role at Los Angeles. His last start was a 4-1 loss at Dallas March 3 when he stopped 23 shots.
Elliott, 27, who is 3-6-1 with a 3.65 goals-against average and .851 save percentage, did not need to clear waivers for a conditioning assignment but the Blues did need his consent.
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The Blues' probable lineup:
Alexander Steen-David Backes-T.J. Oshie
Andy McDonald-Patrik Berglund-Chris Stewart
David Perron-Vladimir Sobotka-Vladimir Tarasenko
Chris Porter/Scott Nichol-Jaden Schwartz-Ryan Reaves
Barret Jackman-Alex Pietrangelo
Wade Redden-Kevin Shattenkirk
Kris Russell-Roman Polak
Jaroslav Halak gets the start in goal; Jake Allen is the backup.
Healthy scratches include defenseman Ian Cole and either Porter or Nichol. Jamie Langenbrunner (hip) is out for the season.
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The Kings' probable lineup:
Justin Williams-Anze Kopitar-Dustin Brown
Mike Richards-Tyler Toffoli-Jeff Carter
Dwight King-Jarret Stoll-Trevor Lewis
Kyle Clifford-Colin Fraser-Jordan Nolan
Jake Muzzin-Drew Doughty
Rob Scuderi-Slava Voynov
Alec Martinez-Keaton Ellerby
Jonathan Quick will get the start; Jonathan Bernier, who has been away from the team for personal reasons, will be back in time to be the backup.
Heathy scratches include winger Dustin Penner, center Brad Richardson and defenseman Davis Drewiske. Defensemen Matt Greene (lower-body) and Willie Mitchell (lower-body) are on injured reserve.