Sunday, February 23, 2014

Halak ready to put Olympics in past

Blues netminder, along with rest of Slovakia, 
did not perform up to expectations in Sochi

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Jaroslav Halak went to Vancouver in 2010 firmly entrenched as Slovakia's goalie, then came back to the NHL after a successful run to help the Montreal Canadiens blossom in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The thought was perhaps a repeat with the 2014 Sochi Olympics. 

There is still the opportunity to help the Blues make an extended postseason run, but Halak will have to do so on the heels of a forgetful run by the Slovaks.

Halak's numbers reflect just how poorly things went for Slovakia, which finished fourth four years ago but was one of the major disappointments at this year's Olympics, going 0-3-1.
(Getty Images)
Slovakia's Jaroslav Halak (41) makes a save at the Sochi Olympics vs.
the United States' Ryan Kesler (middle).

Halak was 0-2 with a whopping 5.13 goals-against average and a .857 save percentage before giving up the reigns to Jan Laco, who started the final two games.

Halak, who was on the ice Sunday with the Blues for the first time along with Vladimir Tarasenko since the two returned from Olympic competition, reflected on the Slovaks' poor performance, including a 7-1 beatdown in the opener against the United States. 

"It didn't happen. That's hockey. We didn't play great," Halak said. "At the Olympics, when you play against the best, you need to play the best. We need to do our best every night. We didn't do that. That's as simple as that."

Halak allowed five goals on 25 shots before being pulled against the U.S. He then stopped 28 shots in a 3-1 loss to Slovenia, a game in which was 0-0 heading into the third period.

It was before the final preliminary round game that Slovakia coach Vladimir Vujtek made the change and decided to start Laco against Russia, a game in which the host country won 1-0 in a shootout. 

Reports circulated that Halak was told he was done for the tournament prior to facing rival Czech Republic in a playoff round matchup and that Laco would be the goalie the rest of the way. Halak refuted those reports.

"I was never told I was done for the tournament," Halak said. "I just figured maybe I was after we played well in Russia game. I was still hoping to get back in there, but it didn't happen for me.

"Obviously I didn't expect it, but we needed to win, we needed to make a few changes. Coach changed the goalie and that was it. I'm glad to be back here and get the first one."

"We didn't play great, I didn't play great," Halak added. "Now I'm glad to be back and hopefully I can help the guys get some points."

Blues goalie coach Corey Hirsch said the team puts no stock in what happened with Halak and the Sochi Olympics. 

"He won't let it affect him at all because he knows," Hirsch said of Halak. "Jaro's smart enough to know that sometimes this game isn't fair. 

"He knew the situation in Russia with that team. You can't control a coach's decision. You look at what happened, the coach even bypassed Budaj. There's obviously something wrong with that. We're not concerned in that sense. ... The coach kind of made him and Budaj scapegoats."

With the Olympics behind him, Halak now can focus on the task at hand: helping the Blues succeed in their remaining 25 regular season games as well as a deep, extended run in the playoffs.

Halak is 24-8-4 with a 2.26 GAA and .915 save percentage. He had rattled off a stretch of games prior to the break in which he was 8-2-2.

"There's still a lot of hockey left," Halak said. "I'm still looking forward to the rest of the season. I'm going to try to do all I can.

"I need to get back to it. I need to get back to a few really good practices and then play the game. We'll see how it's going to go, but I'm really glad to be back here practicing. The first one is behind me. We've got a few more before the games."

Halak was under siege in both games playing for Slovakia. His Blues teammates know it, and they have no issues with who he is or what he brings.

"Absolutely, no issues," defenseman Barret Jackman said. "He's an elite goalie. He's one of the best in the league right now. A short tournament with all the travel and a different team too. It's not a defensive team like we have. It's a different style of hockey that he saw there. It's two games. It really means nothing to what he means to our team. We've got all the faith in the world in him.

"Really I didn't even think about (Halak losing confidence). Glad to see him back. Hopefully he got a few days' rest and hopefully he's ready to go Wednesday night. ... He's always bounced back. I don't know the numbers, but I'm sure you can look at it and see how he's responded to maybe getting pulled or letting in more than one goal, which zero to one goal for him is pretty routine. Whatever he's going to do mentally, he's been in the league long enough to know how to turn things around."

Hirsch said he watched Halak both games in Sochi. He obviously looked at tendencies and technique but puts no stock in what Hirsch calls a completely different set of circumstances when it comes to play in the NHL. 

"That Slovakia team, let's be honest, they weren't very good," Hirsch said. "They didn't have a very good tournament. They put the other guy in and still didn't win, so it didn't matter." 

Halak, along with Tarasenko, was given a couple days to rest and catch back up with the 10-hour time difference with Russia. He's back to familiar ground and locked in with the rest of his teammates here.

"I know we've got a really good team," Halak said. "We just need to keep playing the same way we were before the break. I know the guys will be tired getting back, but we just need to make sure everybody plays their best game in Vancouver.

"... I'm still trying to catch up to the time changes. Hopefully within the next few days, I'll be back."

With 25 games in 47 days, the Blues will be relying on both Halak and Brian Elliott to share the load.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues goalie Jaroslav Halak (41) makes a save earlier this season with
the help of teammate Roman Polak (middle).

"We need both of them. We've got 25 games in forty-something days," Jackman said. "It's going to be a shared position going down the road here. 

"We're not worried about their confidence. Jaro knows that tournament is different from the NHL. Those were two games for him. Goalies have a bad game or two and elite goalies can come through it."

And the Blues know when Halak's at his best. He's the franchise leader in shutouts (20). 

"He's confident, he's big, he's aggressive and he's got a good energy level," Hirsch said. "That's the thing we see the most. He has more of a presence in the net. He plays at the top of the paint, attacking pucks. It's an overall presence you can feel on the ice. 

"We've talked quite a bit and it's status quo. Our goal here is the Stanley Cup and that's his. We just pick up where we left off." 

* NOTES -- Defenseman Jordan Leopold, who injured his right ankle in the Blues last game prior to the Olympic break, was on the ice for the second time but first in full gear Sunday. The 33-year-old got tangled up with Winnipeg's Zach Bogosian and limped off the ice in the second period and did not return. 

It's the second injury for Leopold this season. He suffered ligament damage on the right index finger that forced him to miss 26 games.

"The Winnipeg game was frustrating for me. To have another setback ... I don't know how to put it ... it's been a long year to this point," Leopold said. "To have something that's going to nag here for a little bit isn't going to be fun. It is part of the game. You hate to say that, but it is. I'll deal with it and I'll go with the ebbs and flows as we go here."

Leopold said the injury will likely not go away the rest of the season and it's something he'll have to play through but it could have been much worse.

"I think I'm pretty fortunate with what ended up happening," Leopold said. "It's just one of those things that takes time now. It's probably the rest of the year I'm going to be dealing with it. We'll see if I can get to the points where it's good to go and I'll deal with it from there. ... It's something that's going to be there."

Forward Vladimir Sobotka (knee) did not skate despite early indications he could take the ice this weekend. Sobotka was at the practice facility and walking without much/any restriction. Sobotka, who was injured on Jan. 31 at Carolina, was originally expected to be re-evaluated after four weeks.

. . . With Canada's 3-0 win over Sweden in the gold-medal game to conclude the Sochi Olympics, four members of the Blues took home coveted gold medals.

Defensemen Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo were key components to Canada's stifling d-unit, which allowed only three goals in six games. Also, Blues general manager Doug Armstrong was part of the front office staff and coach Ken Hitchcock was an assistant under Canada coach Mike Babcock.

"I'm super excited for them," Blues forward Jaden Schwartz, a Wilcox, Saskatchewan native, said. "The Olympics doesn't happen very often. To bring home a gold medal is pretty special. I know they were nervous and excited to get over there. It's a huge honor. Being a Canadian, I was really happy for them."

The Blues' Alexander Steen and Patrik Berglund, who both played for Sweden, received silver medals. David Backes, Kevin Shattenkirk and T.J. Oshie were left on the outside looking in when the U.S. lost 5-0 to Finland in the bronze-medal game Saturday.

. . . Center Maxim Lapierre missed practice Sunday to be with his wife, who was expected to deliver the couple's first child, a daughter.

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