Backup goaltender Ty Conklin, making just his second start in place of Halak this season, made 27 saves as the St. Louis Blues won their seventh straight, picking up a 2-0 victory against the New York Rangers on Sunday night at Madison Square Garden.
Halak entered Sunday's games ranked third in both goals-against average (1.46) and save percentage (.944) among goaltenders who have made at least six starts. Conklin, whose only other appearance came on Oct. 16, improved to 2-0-0 and was sharp when he needed to be.
"I was a little rusty. The game was a little fast in the first 10 minutes of the first period," said Conklin."We did a pretty job of sheltering me early in the game, for sure, as far as the type of chances we were giving."
"As good as Halak's been playing, to come in and have a game like that," said Blues coach Davis Payne, who couldn't find the words to finish his thought about Conklin's excellent play. "It's something Conks has done for quite some time. He's shown this unbelievable ability to step in and when called upon at a moment's notice and give you a performance like that."
The shutout was the first by the Blues against the Rangers in 128 meetings, making Conklin part of yet another weird trivia question. He's already known as the only goalie to play in three Winter Classics.
"Yeah, I heard that. I don't mind," Conklin said with a laugh. "I think with the Winter Classics … I don't know if this just happened to be, but this is the result of a pretty good team effort. I've had a lot of good experiences."
Making the shutout somewhat surprising was the fact the Blues were without three defensemen -- Carlo Colaiacovo, Barret Jackman and Roman Polak, who are all out with injuries. Yet the Blues still dressed seven defensemen against the Rangers.
It's a testament to the depth of a team that has been stockpiling prospects in recent years.
"We've got a good team commitment," Payne said. "When a guy gets banged up or is unable to go, we create success through our team game. These guys just come to the rink, show up and march along. Guys are going to hurt, guys are going to come out of the lineup, we're just going to keep working."
Alexander Steen's goal early in the second period was all St. Louis needed. He added an empty-netter with 3.9 seconds remaining, his third goal of the season.
The Blues (9-1-2) are tied for the League lead with 20 points with the Washington Capitals and Los Angeles Kings, who have played more games than the Blues. But just 12 games into the season, players aren't ready to start basking in the glow of their place in the standings.
"We're feeling good about ourselves and we're doing it through adversity with the injuries we've had," Conklin said. "What are we, 12 games into the season? We're not setting any benchmarks. But it's a good start, though."
The Rangers gave the night off to goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. Making his third start of the season, Martin Biron played well, stopping 20 of 21 shots to fall to 1-2-0 on the season.
Biron was outstanding during the first 20 minutes, stopping 14 shots. He made five of those saves during two Blues power plays that came as a result of penalties to Rangers forward Ruslan Fedotenko.
"The first period wasn’t the way we wanted to start the game," Biron said. "I thought we battled in the second and third. St. Louis played well in all three zones as a team."
The Rangers caught a bit of a bad break in the final minutes of the first period when an apparent goal by Alexander Frolov was disallowed.
Blues defenseman Nikita Nikitin touched the puck with a high stick in the neutral zone. The puck slid to goaltender Ty Conklin, who touched it with his stick. Frolov put the puck into the net immediately after that, but the play was properly whistled dead when Conklin touched the puck.
Steen broke through on Biron not long after, snapping a wrist shot off a 3-on-2 rush to the Blues ahead 1-0. Steen took a feed from Brad Boyes and beat Biron to the stick side at 5:16.
At 6:25 of the third period, Blues forward B.J. Crombeen took what could've been a game-changing penalty when he was given a five-minute major for boarding the Rangers' Derek Stepan. But the Blues killed it off without allowing a goal.
Artem Anisimov had a golden opportunity to tie it with Crombeen in the box. He gathered a loose puck with Conklin on the ice, but his shot hit the side of the net and bounced harmlessly behind the net.
"We had a couple of chances but not enough," said Rangers forward Ryan Callahan of the five-minute power play. "We knew they were going to be aggressive on their penalty kill and we just didn't match it."
They also couldn't match Conklin's play in net. It's a luxury in the NHL to have a backup as capable as Conklin, and his coach knows it.
"It's very, very comforting," Payne said. "Jaro can't play every single and Conks is very capable. He's done it his whole career. He's just a consummate pro in staying ready. It's why he's looked upon in this league as a real top guy in that role."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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