Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Blues goaltending rounding into form

Halak, Elliott both showing signs of Jennings Trophy-winning season

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- With the Blues holding an optional skate Wednesday after getting in from Montreal very late in the night, Brian Elliott was on the ice getting ready for his next test.

That test will come Thursday when the Blues' goaltender will face the Calgary Flames in the first of a five-game homestand.

And with the Blues off to a 9-2-2 start, many areas of their game can earn credit for the strong start. But what is starting to stand out is the play of both Elliott and Jaroslav Halak in goal, and it's reminding coach Ken Hitchcock of the days when the duo was the best in the NHL, winning the Jennings Trophy two seasons ago.

(St. Louis Blues/Getty Images)
Brian Elliott makes one of his 31 saves Friday that resulted in a 4-0 shutout
of the Florida Panthers Friday. Elliott will get the nod Thursday vs. Calgary.
"That's what I'm hoping," Hitchcock said Wednesday afternoon. "They both look like they're on top of their game right now. We're going to get more games against top teams now and we'll get a better read. They both look like they're on top of their game and that's going to really help us. That's what we need."

Elliott, who is 1-0-1 with a 2.07 goals-against average and .932 save percentage, is coming off a shutout victory Friday at Florida. Halak (8-2-1, 2.30 GAA, .911 save percentage) has received the bulk of the playing time in the early going, but when the two were on top of the league in 2011-12, it was a split of games that kept both goalies fresh.

"We need that 55-45 split for us to be successful," Hitchcock said. "Jaro's not a big guy. He's not 6-foot-4, he's not 225 pounds. He's a small guy that needs to get his rest at times, so Ells has got to be the guy that plays against good teams. It's not mopping up. He's got to play against good teams and the way he played in Florida is good and he's going to get another real challenge tomorrow against Calgary."

If Halak and Elliott are turning back time, it bodes well for the Blues. Last season was an aberration, the team hopes. It was of course the lockout season that nobody knew when it would end or if a season would be played. But when it got going, it was most difficult for goalies to be prepared from a mental and physical standpoint.

But having a training camp and knowledge when games were going to get going helped the preparation status for both entering 2013-14.

"I don't know if it's training camp. I think it's just the fact that you have a target date that you can prepare for," Elliott said. "As a goalie, if you train too hard too early, it's a hindrance. You want to try and find that peak (zone) when you start the season. When you have a date, it's a lot easier than just saying, 'OK, we're going in a week.' When you're practicing (during the lockout), you don't have an end date and you're not really practicing with a purpose. Now, I think before training camp and through training camp, you had that purpose, you had that, 'OK, this is what I need to do to play a game. This is what I need to do to try to stay in shape and wait when the season's going to start.'"

Both Elliott and Halak struggled at the outset last season, with Halak dealing with a pair of groin injuries that also affected his play, and Elliott had a tough time before gaining his old form back in the month of April. The tandem saw Jake Allen come in and resurrect a team that had, as Hitchcock said at the time, "a lot of debris in our game."

But now that both Halak and Elliott are poised to replicate the success of two seasons ago and leave last season's inconsistency behind, the Blues are going to need both to shine simultaneously. And pushing each other to be the best is what seemed like was the best remedy.

"I feel good out there. I obviously can't speak for (Halak), but by the way he's playing, he's probably feeling the same way," Elliott said. "It's all about trying to find that special zone and staying in there and emptying your mind and playing. That's how it is for me. Whenever I go out and practice, I try to block everything else out. One shot at a time, take it and try to learn something every day and maybe try to get better every day.

(St. Louis Blues/Getty Images)
Jaroslav Halak (left) earned his eighth victory of the season after beating
his former team, the Montreal Canadiens, in a shootout Tuesday night.
"He's obviously got the time off the bat, and I want to prove myself and showing the team that I'm ready to go whenever needed. Hopefully, that pushes him too. I think it makes us both better."

And according to Hitchcock, so does coaching instruction, which neither got prior to the season starting.

"I think it was more the instruction. I think having a goalie coach and having instruction is more important than anything, especially for that position," Hitchcock said. "Going out and stopping pucks, it's hard to just coach yourself. I think having instruction and having that consistent instruction every day really helped these guys a lot."

* NOTES -- Both Brenden Morrow and Magnus Paajarvi, on injured reserve with upper-body injuries, were part of the optional skate Wednesday as they recover from their respective ailments.

Paajarvi has not played since Oct. 26 at Nashville and Morrow hasn't played since taking a cross-check against Winnipeg Oct. 29.

"I skated on my own for the last two days and was out there for an optional skate with the guys," Morrow said. "There was no body contact or anything, but the drills and exercises I've been doing, I've had no problems with.

"I started slow. The first couple days were pretty sore. I had a tough time getting out of bed even, but over a short period of time gotten a lot better. I think it's about a week or so now. I'm able to do about 90 percent of the things in the ice. The last thing will probably be body contact and I don't know how far away I'm from getting into that stuff."

Added Hitchcock: "Both guys are good. Both guys were getting bumped into today, full participants in the scrimmage, or the little game they had going on. Good to see. We'll get a better read on them tomorrow morning how they feel, but they got bumped around a little bit today. We'll bump them hard tomorrow and see where they're at."

. . . The Blues' 3-2 shootout win at Montreal didn't come with a close call at the end of regulation, when the Canadiens were awarded a penalty shot in the game's final minute after David Backes was called for deliberately displacing the net off its moorings.

Halak was able to stop Tomas Plekanec's attempt with 49 seconds remaining and the Blues went on to grab the two points, but Hitchcock disagreed with Eric Furlatt's call.

"When you make that call, it's in the rule book ... you've got to make the call," Hitchcock said. "The call's automatic. It is a penalty shot. There's no decision there; you've got to make it.

"I've always viewed that call quite frankly as the puck's got to be in the area or it's got to be pertinent to a scoring chance. The player that knocked the net off, David, had moved the puck behind the net anyways already. That's what I was arguing about, but he made the call. When you make that call, it's automatic. It's a penalty shot. It would have been a really tough way to lose, that's all I can say."

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