Saturday, January 12, 2013

Blues' last line of defense armed and ready

Team will be well off if netminders Halak,
Elliott can post similar numbers as last year

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- As great as the regular season was last year, it's no secret that goalies Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott were the backbones for a Blues team that made life difficult on most nights for all opponents.

The Blues, who allowed the fewest goals (165) in the NHL, were 22 clear of everyone else (187 allowed by the New York Rangers). And it was a 1-2 punch that even had a veteran coach like Ken Hitchcock, who had the luxury of picking between the two, marveling at their play.

Halak and Elliott, both 27, took home the William M. Jennings Trophy last year, which is given to the goalie(s) who played a minimum of 25 games and allowed the fewest goals against. It was an honor well-deserved.
(Mark Buckner/St. Louis Blues)
Jaroslav Halak bounced back after a poor start last year to finish 26-12-7.

But as the Blues open their 2013 training camp Sunday at Scottrade Center with a 48-game schedule staring them square in the face, as much as they needed the Halak-Elliott tandem last year, they might need it even more this season.

Considering how packed the games will be played through April, having a pair of No. 1-type netminders gives the Blues another reason to feel like they are equipped to handle the rigors of a condensed season.

"If we play the same as we did last year, we'd be really happy," Hitchcock said.

However, what the Blues will have to monitor closely is who looks sharp early and who might have an upper edge between the two. Between them, only Halak (one game) played a competitive game in Europe (Germany) during the lockout.

Could there be some rust? Perhaps. But confidence plays a major role for any netminder.

"I think you just have to trust yourself and trust what you've trained for, your instincts going into the season. I'm definitely excited," said Elliott, who was 23-10-4 and led the league in goals-against average (1.56) and save percentage (.940) to go with nine shutouts in 38 games last season. It's getting back to that game speed (that) is always a little difficult.

"What I'm going to go into this training camp is have those good practice habits. You're focusing on every shot, you're wanting every shot, kind of playing it like a game so when the puck does drop, you're not scrambling to get focused. You're already there."

Halak, who was 26-12-7 with a 1.97 GAA and .926 save percentage in 46 games, is coming off a high ankle sprain suffered in Game 2 of the Western Conference quarterfinals against San Jose. He would not play the rest of the playoffs and took time during the summer to heal. But he has since considered himself 100 percent healthy.

"I felt 100 percent in August," Halak said. "In August, I was good to go. Since then I was just waiting like everybody else.

"I was getting my workouts every day (in his native Bratislava, Slovakia). I was skating, having goalie practices every day. I felt good, but obviously it is different to practice with the whole team than with a few guys that are shooting on you."

Instead of looking for just any job in Europe, Elliott decided to stay primarily in St. Louis and work out with a sizable group of Blues teammates to remain sharp.
(Mark Buckner/St. Louis Blues)
Brian Elliott (right) finished No. 1 in the NHL in goals-against average
(1.56) and save percentage (.940) a year ago.

"It was tough for a goalie to find a job overseas," said Elliott, who allowed 58 goals on 972 shots a season ago. "For the amount of import cards they were burning, it's hard to burn one on a goalie that would not be there for the whole season or may not be there for the whole season.

"It was tougher to find jobs, and where there were job openings, the league level was probably not at the NHL or AHL level. It almost works against you as a goalie to go face slower shots, slower speeds. I thought it was more beneficial to be around NHL players and take those shots on a regular basis."

Halak played for Lausitzer Fusche and was the winning goalie in a 2-1 shootout win. He had signed a one-month contract but that would be the extent of his games played.

"I was going to go there and stay for a month, but then I had to go back home and take care of some stuff," said Halak, who allowed 90 goals on 1,211 shots last season. "Then in mid-December, it looked like we would start playing in the NHL so I just stayed at home and then my contract expired after that. I just stayed at home and waited and I was hoping it would start soon."

And now that the NHL season will start in a week, teams will be playing once roughly every two days. Keeping two fresh goalies is going to be crucial, just as it was for the Blues last season when they were 49-22-11.

When the league last played a 48-game schedule in the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season, only Montreal's Patrick Roy and Calgary's Trevor Kidd played all 48 games. The Canadiens did not make the playoffs and the Flames were eliminated in the opening round of the playoffs.

"If what they're saying is right that basically you're playing every second day or if you're playing at least four games a week, probably four games a week or three-and-a-half games a week, that's a lot of hockey for one guy to have to play over a short period of time," Hitchcock said. "So we're going to need both guys.

"I think we've got a lot of advantages but only if we use them. We have depth in goal. ... But I don't know what happens when you don't play. Are you refreshed? Are you focused? Are you seeing things better? Are you not tired mentally or physically? Are you not worn down? I have no idea."

Both Halak and Elliott are fully aware they will rely on one another again. If it weren't for Elliott's stellar play early last season, who knows how long Halak's early-season funk would have lasted. History might be worth repeating itself but only with both flying out of the gates.

"If you look at the schedule, you've got 48 games," Halak said. "It's going to be game after game after game. We both need to be ready. We just have to play one game at a time. That's all you can do and don't worry about the next game. Stop all the pucks in the game you play and don't worry about anything else.

"We could repeat the same thing or one of us ... I don't know, something could happen, but hopefully we can both play at the level we played last year. I know it's not going to be easy, but everybody thinks we can do it. We'll see what happens."

Hitchcock won't alter a formula that obviously worked, at least at the start of the season. But if someone should falter, there's someone in the wings eager and capable of stepping in.

"I think somebody's going to have to prove that they're not up to speed because I think both guys deserve the chance to play and we're going to do that," Hitchcock said. "But if one guy doesn't look like he's up to speed, then we'll have to go with the other guy because we don't have time to build on it or recover. We've got to get going."

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