(HockeyStL) -- When the preseason began just over a month ago, the Blues had a bit of a conundrum regarding their goaltending. The Blues had three capable National Hockey League goalies in Jaroslav Halak, Brian Elliott, and Jake Allen all vying for playing time.
Having a two-goalie system worked okay for the club the past two seasons, but this year, head coach Ken Hitchcock was not interested in splitting starts; he wanted a clear-cut number one goaltender. A rigorous offseason workout, a strong showing in camp, and now a great start to the season has Halak settling into that role which is what the Blues have always intended for him.
Halak has started the season with a 3-0 record, leading the club to victories over the Predators, the Panthers, and the reigning Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks. It’s a bit of an uncustomary start for Halak, who looks as good as he ever has in Blues uniform.
“I’m just trying to stop the puck and have fun out there,” Halak said after he and his teammates edged by the Blackhawks on Wednesday evening. Halak was the game’s first star, stopping 26 of 28 Chicago shots. On the year, Halak has stopped 73 of 77 shots faced. The quick start for Halak is a bit surprising considering his track record.
Since joining the Blues in 2010, Halak has had more downs than ups. Injuries have plagued the goaltender and have forced him to be sidelined at the most inopportune times, including the Blues’ last two playoff appearances. The Blues have played in 15 playoff games split between the past two seasons. But Halak has been between the pipes for just two of them.
The 28-year old goaltender is ready to put the past behind him and prove himself as a number one goalie. That process started this offseason where Halak stayed in St. Louis for the first time since joining the organization. Halak devoted more time and energy into his offseason workout and came into training camp in what he claimed was the best shape of his career.
Hitchcock said in training camp that Halak would be the number one goalie this season, but had Halak not been devoted to his conditioning this offseason, Hitchcock and the Blues may have been forced to go another direction.
“He had to do his part, too,” said Hitchcock. “He had to come in in elite shape. That was extremely important.”
Halak’s recurring groin injuries were responsible for his lengthy absences from the lineup last season, as well as inconsistent play. But Halak did his best to limit the risk for injury this offseason with his workouts.
“The doctor told him that he didn’t need surgery but that his conditioning level was going to dictate the strength of (his groin) muscle,” said Hitchcock.
Halak’s mobility in net was affected greatly last season due to his injury issues, but so far, it looks vastly improved. His biggest test of the season came on Wednesday night, but he flourished in net and was a big part of the Blues’ win. Some of Halak’s saves came at times when allowing a goal could have easily shifted the entire game into the Blackhawks’ favor. But as he has done multiple times already this season, Halak came through big.
“(He’s making saves) when the games are on the line,” said Hitchcock. “He’s done a heck of a job so far. He’s had a real good start to the year.”
The Slovakia native’s goal is to put his stamp on the league and show that he is a capable goaltender. It’s a big year for Halak, who is an unrestricted free agent after this season. If Halak wants a pay raise, he will have to earn it, especially if he wants to remain a member of the Blues.
Through three games, Halak boasts a .948 save percentage and a 1.33 goals against average. To go along with those numbers, Halak also earned a spot in the Blues’ record book in this year’s second regular season game, as he passed Glenn Hall’s record for most shutouts. Hall had 16 shutouts as a member of the Blues franchise; Halak earned his 17th last Saturday.
“I know (Hall) was a great goaltender. He was in the league for many years, and was great,” said Halak. “I’m glad I passed him in shutouts, but I wouldn’t have been able to do it without my teammates. It’s a special feeling, but we just started the season. “
Halak’s candor toward his teammates is not without reason, but Halak’s early performance deserves notice. With every win, Halak is solidifying himself as the team’s go-to goaltender. It’s an ideal situation for the team, and one they haven’t had in a few years.
“We are just kind of focused on one game at a time, seeing how Jaro feels and going from there,” Hitchcock said.
While Halak’s numbers are a relief to some, it needs to be emphasized that it remains too early to tell if this is a new Halak, or just an early streak. There are noticeable improvements in Halak’s play, and they are significant. However, if Halak suffers a setback, or sees his game falter, the Blues could be in a world of hurt.
Halak is off to a great start early, but a quick start means little if the pace isn’t maintained. There is a reason for the Blues to be excited about Halak’s strong start. If Halak can maintain his solidarity in net, there is an incredible amount of potential for this craving St. Louis squad.