Halak ready to backstop Blues sprint to the cup

Halak ready to backstop Blues sprint to the cup

DALLAS, TX - OCTOBER 13: Jaroslav Halak #41 of the St. Louis Blues in goal against the Dallas Stars at American Airlines Center on October 13, 2011 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

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by Andrew Allsman / HockeyStL

KMOV.com

Posted on January 12, 2013 at 4:11 PM

Updated Saturday, Jan 12 at 5:41 PM

ST. LOUIS, Mo. (HockeyStL) -- Almost exactly nine months after sustaining a season-ending injury, Blues goalie Jaroslav Halak is back in St. Louis for training camp. Sunday will be Halak’s first formal team practice since April, and he told reporters on Thursday that his ankle is 100 percent healed, and has been since August.

Halak has been forced to wait out the lockout, but he is anxious to play, and to pick up where he left off last season.

Halak, 27, played in only one game for Germany’s Lausitzer Foxes during the lockout, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t preparing for the season while he waited for an end to the lockout.

“I was getting in my workout every day,” said Halak. “I was skating and having goalie practice every day, and I felt good. It’s nice to now be back with a full team, and now I want to focus on getting back to where I need to be.”

Halak’s teammate, Brian Elliott, stole the spotlight last season with his surprising performance. But almost unnoticeably, Halak had arguably the best season of his career. Halak posted a 26-12-7 record, with a 1.97 goals against average (GAA), and a .925 save percentage. Halak and Elliott’s remarkable play last season earned them the William M. Jennings Trophy for allowing a league-low 155 goals against.

With a condensed schedule, goalies will be getting far less rest in between games, making it even more logical for head coach Ken Hitchcock to once again alternate goaltenders. Hitchcock has discussed the possibility of periodically using a ‘practice goaltender’ in order to reduce the strain on Halak and Elliott. As far as who will be the number one goaltender, if anyone, Hitchcock says to “assume nothing.”

“Who knows? We could repeat what we did last year, or something could happen to one of us,” said Halak. “Hopefully (Elliott and I) can play at the level we did last year; I know it’s not going to be easy, but everyone has seen what we can be. We will just have to see what happens.”

The Blues went with the ‘hot hand’ much of last season, a strategy that worked in their favor, and one that carried over into the playoffs. However, they were forced to change their proven strategy when Halak went down with what was declared at the time a “lower-body injury” in game two of the quarterfinals series against the San Jose Sharks. Halak’s injury persisted, and kept the goaltender off of the ice for a substantial amount of time, including the remainder of the playoffs. The injury was later declared a high-ankle sprain, and the discomfort continued well into the offseason.

But instead of looking back and wondering what could have been, Halak is looking forward to a new season, and hoping for a healthy campaign.

“It was tough (not being able to play in playoffs),” admitted Halak. “You play the whole season to get to the playoffs, and obviously that is the time you most want to be in and competing, but it happened. Injuries are a part of the game. Unfortunately you can’t choose when or what happens to you. Hopefully nothing like that will happen this season.”

Halak has two seasons remaining on his four-year, $15 million contract. His next two years will play a huge part in determining how much of a pay raise he gets when his current contract expires. The Bratislava, Slovakia native led the Montreal Canadiens to the Eastern Conference finals in 2010, but he was dealt to the Blues the following offseason.

The Blues are hoping to see some similar magic from Halak this season as they try to reach the playoffs for the second consecutive season for the first time since the 2004. Ken Hitchcock and the coaching staff will use the coming week to determine how they will divide the playing time between their goaltenders.

Halak acknowledged that both he and Elliott will have to play a big role in the team’s success, and says their sole focus is stopping the puck from crossing the goal line.

If the Blues’ goaltenders can continue to work their magic, the Blues will be in good shape. Hitchcock admitted that having two goaltenders could work in the Blues favor, but he isn’t convinced that it will work out quite as well as it did last season. Halak and Elliott are just worried about getting in game shape after the long break, and are ignoring everything else.

“If you look at the schedule, we have 48 games, and it’s going to be game after game after game,” said Halak. “We both (Halak and Brian Elliott) need to be ready.  We don’t need to worry about the next game; just stop all the pucks in the game we play and then worry about everything else.”

Halak and the Blues will have six days of camp to fine tune their game before kicking off the season against the Detroit Red Wings.

“Everybody is ready to go,” said Halak. “But first we have to get back to where we want to be as a team and as individual players.”

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