Monday, April 9, 2012

Goalie decision going to go down the stretch

Hitchcock won't disclose until Thursday if
Halak or Elliott will start opener against San Jose

ST. LOUIS -- Ken Hitchcock has been alternating goalies since his arrival in November. There was a luxury to playing both Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott. Both played extremely good, probably better than the veteran coach expected.

After all, how do you just go with a quick decision after the pair just won the Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed in a season? Both were instrumental in that team award.

That's why the decision as to who will be the starting netminder when the Blues open the Western Conference quarterfinals against the San Jose Sharks Thursday, won't come down until ... Thursday morning.

"No, not yet. I'll do that on Thursday morning," Hitchcock said Monday when asked if he had made a decision yet. "... It's a great luxury to have. It's just a pain in the [butt] to talk about, to be honest with you. You've got two good guys, two guys going good. Can't really make a wrong decision. We'll just kind of play it out and see how we go.
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Will Ken Hitchcock opt for Jaroslav Halak in Game 1 vs. San Jose ... 

I look back at why we [split the games between the goalies] ... it's a tandem because both guys were kind of similar when I got here, so I just went with both guys. I think it's a tandem because I was the new guy on the block. I wanted to see what both guys had. And when both guys showed me a lot, I just kept going with both guys. I wondered to this day why I didn't pick one guy, and I think it was because I had no history with either guy. I think if it was a guy that was here a long time, we would have probably picked one guy who knows where it would have gone. When I showed up, I gave one start to one guy and two games later, another guy's going. They both did so well so we just kept going down that path. I don't think that's the way we anticipated playing at the start. I don't think that's the way the organization looked at it at the start, but I think because I came in and both guys played really good, that's the way it ended up."

Halak came in as the starter this season but after stumbling out of the gates at 1-6 with a 3.38 goals-against average and an .835 save percentage, along came Elliott to the rescue.

Elliott hasn't disappointed. He went 23-10-4 with a 1.56 GAA and .940 save percentage, which was tops in both categories in the NHL this season. His GAA also broke the modern-day NHL record in a season, which was previously held by Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff in 2003-04 at 1.69.

"You have to give credit to all the guys in front of you," said Elliott, who was 2-0-0 with a 1.00 GAA and .967 save percentage against San Jose this season. "It takes a whole team to do that. We're just a piece of the puzzle."

When asked if he was on pins and needles awaiting a decision, Elliott said: "No, I don't think so at all. It's their decision. You can't worry about it. You just want to get wins and that's what the playoffs are all about. It's going to be fun."

Halak, who turned his season around by going 25-6-7 the rest of the way and finish 26-12-7 with a 1.97 GAA and .926 save percentage, also said the choice is up to the coaches.

"It's his decision," Halak said of Hitchcock. "I did my best all season. I think Ells did the same thing and right now, it's up to (Hitchcock).

"Obviously I would love to play and Ells would love to play and only one can play. We'll see what happens. If it's going to be me or Ells, either way, we need to play as a team. ... I can't tell [the decision]. I wish I knew. It's probably up to the coaching staff."

Hitchcock has faced many tough decisions in his coaching lifetime, and although this decision appears to be tough, it's not to the 60-year-old.

"There's been a lot tougher than this," Hitchcock said. "The toughest decision is when you've decided that a veteran player's had enough and he doesn't have anything more to give and then you've got to tell him he can't play in something that's this important. The players play for all the right reasons this time of the year. Everything you thought of as a kid, everything you've wanted as a kid is sitting right in front of you in the playoffs.
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... or will it be Brian Elliott, who led the NHL in GAA and SV%?

"It's not like [the] regular season or anything like that. It's everything you've wanted, and when you have to tell a veteran player that he can no longer participate, that is really emotional and really tough. Thank God we're not to that stage yet."

If it weren't for Halak's inconsistent beginning, Elliott might not have even won the backup job over Ben Bishop, who has since been traded to Ottawa. Both were neck-and-neck in the training camp to battle for the backup role, but Blues general manager Doug Armstrong and then-coach Davis Payne opted to go with the guy with more NHL experience.

"If you look back, I really had a bad start," said Halak, who was also 2-0-0 with a 1.00 GAA and .956 save percentage against the Sharks this season. "Ells set the tone. He's been great all season long from the beginning to the end. I just wanted to pick up my game and start playing better after the first seven games of the season. Fortunately for me, it happened.

"I'm glad to have finished the way it finished. But I don't think we would be able to do it without our defensemen and forwards. It's been a team effort and right now, we just need to focus on the final part of the season. One chapter is closed, and a second one we have to open. We'll see what happens. .. We have to probably play even better [in the playoffs].

Elliott agreed.

"We're a piece of the puzzle, but everything has to be firing," Elliott said. "You can stop almost all the shots and still lose the game in the playoffs. We definitely want to play the same way and I'm sure the guys in front of us want to do the same."

Hitchcock would love nothing more than to see his tandem play even better.

"To me, [the goalies] have been the story of our hockey club," Hitchcock said. "When your leading scorer hasn't gotten to 60 points yet and you're in first in the division, that's quite an accomplishment. We've done it with checking, we've done it with defense and more importantly, we've done it with goaltending.

"Any time you win the goals-against average, you need two things: first of all, you need structure, and secondly, your goalies have to be game stars night in and night out. That's exactly what's happened here. First thing is the goalies have been our best players from start to finish and I think the second part is we held our structure part together all year. When you can do that, you can win games at 80 percent as long as your structure's in place."

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