ST. LOUIS — Outside of the St. Louis Blues clearly defining themselves as a true NHL heavyweight, this recent road trip also cemented Jaroslav Halak as the Blues’ No. 1 goaltender.
This was the plan coming into the season, and coach Ken Hitchcock has stuck to his word.
“He’s our number one,” he says.
This shouldn’t take anything away from Brian Elliott, who has picked up right where he left off at the end of the regular season last year. Elliott carries a 3-0-1 record with a 1.94 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage into his start Saturday vs. Dallas.
Elliott stopped 13 of 14 Washington shots in relief of Halak earlier this week. In the past this would have almost guaranteed himself a start the following game.
Not this year.
The Blues will live or die with Halak as their top goaltender. If he plays his way out of his current spot, then that’s a different story, but the Blues are showing as much confidence in Halak as ever and he rewarded his team with arguably his best performance of the season in Boston. He faced 10 shots in the opening period and 31 overall. The Bruins scored twice.
Halak, 28, prepared for this season by staying in St. Louis over the summer and training as hard as ever. He entered training camp in the best shape of his career — his body fat dipped below 10 percent for the first time in his life — and he felt fresh both mentally and physically.
After a shaky ending to last season that included multiple groin injuries, hitting the reset button was critical for Halak. And outside of one or two periods this season, this guy has been rock solid. He is 12-3-2 with a 2.34 GAA and a .906 save percentage.
The Blues are one of the NHL’s more stingy defensive teams — and that doesn’t always work to Halak’s advantage. They typically don’t give up much in terms of shots against or scoring chances. This represented a notable departure for Halak upon arriving in St. Louis in 2010 from Montreal, where he would routinely face 40-50 shots a game, especially during his heroic playoff run that led the eighth-seeded Canadiens to the Eastern Conference finals.
There are times in St. Louis when Halak might go 5-10 minutes without seeing a shot before facing an odd-man rush or some other glorious scoring opportunity for the opposition. Playing behind a team like that can be a challenge — one that requires the mental focus to maintain a competitive edge.
The Slovakian native is at his best when he’s busy. The Blues might be the best defensive team in the NHL, and more often than not they will limit the number of shots Halak faces. When Halak is sharp early, as he was in Boston, it’s usually an indication of how well he’ll play the rest of the game.
The Blues played well Thursday night, though it wasn’t their sharpest game. Boston is one of the few teams that has the ability to check as well as the Blues and it led to some turnovers inside their own end. The Blues would not have won this game without Halak playing at the top of the paint and being aggressive throughout the 3-2 shootout victory.
Will this game be enough to quiet the critics who still question whether Halak is a true No. 1 NHL goaltender? Probably not, but the Blues have confidence in him. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters.
One thing we do know: When Halak is on top of his game, he’s as good as any goalie in the league.
You can follow Andy Strickland on Twitter at @andystrickland or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also writes about the Blues and the NHL at truehockey.com.