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Blues' Halak putting Olympic experience behind him

by Louie Korac

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Jaroslav Halak went to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics as Slovakia's No. 1 goalie. He came back to the NHL after a successful tournament and helped the Montreal Canadiens advance to the Eastern Conference Final.

The thought was perhaps a repeat at the 2014 Sochi Olympics could be parlayed into a successful run with the St. Louis Blues, who restart their season Wednesday against the Vancouver Canucks.

There still is the opportunity to help the Blues make an extended postseason run, but Halak will have to do so after a forgettable run by the Slovaks, one he'd certainly like to park in the rear-view mirror.

Halak's numbers reflect just how poorly things went for Slovakia, which finished fourth in Vancouver but was one of the major disappointments in Russia, going winless in the preliminary round and then losing its qualification playoff game 5-3 against the Czech Republic.

Halak was 0-2 with a 5.13 goals-against average and .857 save percentage in two games before giving up the reins to Jan Laco, who started the final two games. Laco was third on the depth chart when the Sochi Olympics began, behind Halak and the Montreal Canadiens' Peter Budaj. Laco is not even the starter on his own team, Donbass Donetsk of the Kontinental Hockey League, where he backs up former NHL goalie Michael Leighton.

Halak, who returned to the ice with the Blues on Sunday, reflected on the Slovaks' poor performance, including a 7-1 loss in the opener against the United States.

"It didn't happen [at the Olympics]," Halak said. "That's hockey. We didn't play great. At the Olympics, when you play against the best you need to play the best. We need to do our best every night. We didn't do that. It's as simple as that."

Halak allowed five goals on 25 shots in a 7-1 loss to the United States in both teams' first game in Sochi. He was pulled in the second period and replaced by Budaj. Halak then stopped 28 shots in a 3-1 loss to Slovenia, a game that was scoreless heading into the third period.

It was before the final preliminary round game that Slovakia coach Vladimir Vujtek made the change and decided to start Laco against Russia, a game in which the host country won 1-0 in a shootout. Laco stopped all 36 shots he faced in regulation and overtime.

Reports circulated that Halak was told he was done for the tournament prior to facing Czech Republic in the elimination game and that Laco would be the goalie the rest of the way. Halak refuted those reports.

"I was never told I was done for the tournament," Halak said. "I just figured maybe I was after we played well in the Russia game. I was still hoping to get back in there but it didn't happen for me.

"Obviously I didn't expect it but we needed to win. We needed to make a few changes. Coach changed the goalie and that was it. I'm glad to be back here and get the first one."

"We didn't play great," Halak also said. "I didn't play great. Now I'm glad to be back and hopefully I can help the guys get some points."

Blues goalie coach Corey Hirsch said the team puts no stock in what happened with Halak at the Olympics.

"He won't let it affect him at all because he knows," Hirsch said. "Jaro's smart enough to know that sometimes this game isn't fair."

With the Olympics behind him Halak can focus on helping the Blues succeed down the stretch as well as make an extended run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Halak is 24-8-4 with a 2.26 GAA and .915 save percentage in 36 games. In 11 games prior to the Olympic break he went 7-2-1.

"There's still a lot of hockey left," Halak said. "I'm still looking forward to the rest of the season. I'm going to try to do all I can.

"I need to get back to it. I need to get back to a few really good practices and then play the game. We'll see how it's going to go but I'm really glad to be back here practicing. We've got a few more before the games."

Halak was under siege in both games playing for Slovakia. His Blues teammates know it and they have no issues with who he is or what he brings to the team.

"He's an elite goalie," defenseman Barret Jackman said. "He's one of the best in the League right now. A short tournament with all the travel and a different team too; it's not a defensive team like we have. It's a different style of hockey that he saw there. It's two games. It really means nothing to what he means to our team. We've got all the faith in the world in him. Jaro knows that tournament is different from the NHL. Those were two games for him. Goalies have a bad game or two and elite goalies can come through it."

Halak and Vladimir Tarasenko, who played for Russia, were given a couple days to rest and recover from the 10-hour time difference between St. Louis and Sochi.

"I know we've got a really good team," Halak said. "We just need to keep playing the same way we were before the break. I know the [fellow Olympic] guys will be tired getting back, but we just need to make sure everybody plays their best game in Vancouver.

"... I'm still trying to catch up to the time changes. Hopefully within the next few days I'll be back."

And the Blues know when Halak's at his best. He's the franchise leader in shutouts (20) despite being fifth all-time in games played for the franchise (158).

"He's confident, he's big, he's aggressive and he's got a good energy level," Hirsch said. "That's the thing we see the most. He has more of a presence in the net. He plays at the top of the paint, attacking pucks. It's an overall presence you can feel on the ice.

"We've talked quite a bit and it's status quo. Our goal here is the Stanley Cup and that's his. We just pick up where we left off."

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