-- Jaroslav Halak
came into his second season with the Blues with a full understanding that he would be "The Guy." The burden of the goaltending would, for the most part, rest squarely on his shoulders.
But an inauspicious start and the stellar play of backup Brian Elliott
left many questioning whether Halak could shoulder the load. Questions began to abound if he was worth the risk.
Halak has admitted to playing poorly to start the season, but for many that don't realize, it wasn't just about stepping onto the ice and between the pipes for the Bratislava, Slovakia native. This season had a different and terribly unfortunate beginning to it after Halak lost friend and countryman Pavol Demitra
, who died suddenly in the Lokomotiv plane crash in September.
"He was there and the next day, you never see him again," Halak said Wednesday of Demitra, whom he played with for the Slovakia national team. "Obviously it's tough to lose someone like that. He was a great hockey player and great person, husband and father.
"It was tough to accept, but we have to move on. Life goes on. We need to move on and try to make the most of our lives."
The mental anguish of losing his friend played heavily on Halak's mental state of mind. His heart was heavy and saddened. Although he wouldn't use it as an excuse, Halak just needed time to accept his friend was gone.
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"He was my teammate and he was just a great person," Halak said of Demitra. "Obviously it was a shock, especially for the people who knew him. Especially for his family, it must be really hard ... for his wife and kids. I feel for them."
On the ice, Halak seems to have found his game. Even though his last three starts have only produced one win, Halak's numbers show a 2.03 goals-against average and .930 save percentage. Since his start against Edmonton on Oct. 30, Halak seems to have turned the corner. He stopped 26 shots in a 4-2 loss, but prevented the Blues from being embarrassed that night by stopping several high-quality scoring chances.
"When you start losing games, your confidence level goes down," said Halak, who is 2-6 with a 2.91 GAA and .879 save percentage. "That's what happened with me. My confidence level was a little bit down.
"Once I got in the Edmonton game, I had been sitting on the bench for about two weeks and I was happy to get a start. ... I was hoping to win the game, but it didn't happen. But I made some nice saves. I wasn't happy with the outcome, but I saw the improvement. Every game since, I've been trying to get better. All it takes is to make some big saves and my confidence level goes up."
Halak continued his improvement in a 2-1 loss at Minnesota Saturday when he stopped 24 shots. His efforts were rewarded with a 29-save effort in Tuesday's 3-0 shutout of Chicago.
Make no mistake about it, Elliott, who is 5-1 with a 1.72 GAA and .941 save percentage, has been a nice story and helped keep St. Louis from the doldrums of the Western Conference while Halak found himself again. But if the Blues are going to be a player in the Western Conference race, they need Halak to be the lead horse.
"We really needed him at critical times in the game (Tuesday)," captain David Backes
said. "He's our starting goalie. We need him to be as good as he can be. Our goalie's got to be our best penalty killer, and Jaro was (Tuesday night)."
Added defenseman Barret Jackman
, "I thought in Minnesota, he played great. We as a team didn't put the puck in the net, and the last three games that Jaro's played, he's played very well."
Halak may not have been good early on, but he was also the victim of goal production. The Blues have averaged 1.5 goals per game in his six losses, four in his two victories.
Halak and goalie coach Corey Hirsch
sit down after each start and study film, critiquing the bad points and accentuating the good points, and go from there. The video sessions seemed to have paid off after seeing Halak playing at the top of the crease, being aggressive and most importantly, playing with confidence.
"I just tried to work hard in practice, tried to get back my game," Halak said. "I've tried to get back on track. I know the last three games, I won only one, but I was feeling better. I was feeling better about my performance. I was happy that guys came through last night. They scored big goals for me."
Halak's slow start may have coincided with the firing of coach Davis Payne
on Sunday night. He said Tuesday night all the players needed to look in the mirror.
"You don't want to see a coaching change ... ever," Halak said. "You can't blame him. Our record was 6-7. Obviously it must have been a tough decision for the organization or management to make. But they had the feeling it was needed.
"Everybody had to look at himself. It starts with myself."
New coach Ken Hitchcock said all he knew was to throw his top guys in there in his first game and let them go, without much knowledge of what happened in the past.
Goalie - STL
GAA: 2.91 | SVP: 0.879
Hitchcock has historically allowed his starting goalies to work out their problems in games as well as practice. He won't put the onus squarely on the goalie playing poor.
"I don't look at it (from the standpoint of), 'Oh, the goalie let goals in,'" Hitchcock said. "I don't believe any goalie can be a good goalie if you give up scoring chances. To me, if a goalie lets in goals and you're giving up 2-on-1s, 3-on-2s and breakaways, that's shame on the rest of the players. I look at that first before I evaluate the goaltender.
"The second part for me is I don't like it when the goalie hangs his head. I have a very short leash for hanging your head with anybody. ... So to me, if a goal goes in and he's propped up again, I've got all kinds of time for that type of stuff, but I hate the slumped shoulders and hanging your head. I'm all over that. I can't stand that."
So Halak, who will get the nod again Thursday night when the Blues host Toronto, will continue to make the adjustments and improve his game, all with the intention of being his best.
"I'll do anything it takes to get back on track and get back my game," Halak said. "It was a great game last night, not only for myself but for the whole team. Obviously I was happy with the outcome, especially with a shutout. It was a team win, for sure. Another game tomorrow and it's going to be a big one."