Halak still settling into role as a No. 1 netminder
Ask Jaroslav Halak if he's sampled any of the local cuisine St. Louis is noted for -- like toasted ravioli and barbecue ribs -- and he quickly says no.
"I haven't eaten those," Halak told NHL.com. "Actually, my girlfriend, she's a great cook, so she's cooking, always cooking something, and she's trying to prepare some Slovak meals all the time and trying to make it feel like home."
Though some might argue Halak is missing out on some of the city's finer things, whatever makes him comfortable enough to feel like home only can be good for the Blues.
Halak never had been in a stable, starting role at the NHL level, having spent most of his early career shuttling between Montreal and the Canadiens' AHL affiliate, the Hamilton Bulldogs. However, that changed last summer when the Canadiens dealt the 26-year-old to the Blues. St. Louis quickly signed him to a four-year contract and installed him as the undisputed starter.
There were ups and downs, as Halak went 27-21-7 with a 2.48 goals-against average and seven shutouts, fourth in the League. However, he missed 13 games with a hand injury and played just 57 games.
"It was obviously an adjustment for me, going into a new team, new teammates, a new city, so obviously I was just getting used to it," Halak said. "Right now I know what to expect and I know the expectations for everybody, so I'm excited and looking forward to the new challenges of the new season."
The Blues have missed the playoffs two straight seasons, and five times in the last six, meaning the majority of the young roster has yet to taste significant playoff success.
Halak, however, doesn't have that problem. As a member of the Canadiens in 2010, he crafted one of the best playoff performances in recent memory -- one that, in fact, punched his ticket to St. Louis.
In the 2010 playoffs, he backstopped the eighth-seeded Canadiens from a 3-1 series deficit to a seven-game first-round series win against the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals, and in the second round eliminated the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
Against the Caps, Halak stopped 131 of the 134 shots he saw in the final three games.
"I was feeling great being part of the group because the guys were blocking so many shots for me every game," Halak said. "A goalie wins some games for a team and some nights the team scores big goals for the goalie.
"Every game, every play that I made, some saves, I was just feeling great and getting more confidence."
While Montreal lost to Philadelphia in five games in the conference finals, his legend was etched in Canadiens lore. In the most prominent example, stop signs around Montreal had the word "HALAK" painted on them.
"I knew it most likely was going to be me who would be traded, but obviously when you hear the news you get surprised," Halak said. "I was surprised that it happened, but at the same time I was happy to be on a team that wants to give me a chance to be a No. 1. I couldn't be any happier to be with St. Louis and be part of the young group we have."
Halak and the Blues have their sights firmly fixed on a return to the postseason, and there's no reason to think they won't be in the mix. Recently named captain David Backes leads a group of forwards that is high on skill and grit, with players like McDonald and Chris Stewart lending potency to an offense that was 10th in goals per game last season.
The defense, too, should be solid with Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo potentially forming a lethal scoring tandem from the blue line. Throw in the added veteran presence of forwards Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner and there are many things to like about St. Louis heading into the season. If the Blues can stay healthy, a playoff berth should be right in their crosshairs.
Of course, as a beaten-up St. Louis team learned in 2010-11, "if" is the operative word.
"Last season the injuries just killed us," Halak said. "In this League if you lose some key players and you lose five, six games in a row, it's going to show at the end of the season."
With the good fortune the Blues' are owed after suffering all those injuries last season, they could finish in the West's top eight this season, and with an experienced netminder, a few breaks could have St. Louis residents putting up some traffic signs of their own next spring.