Refocused Halak is off to best start of his career

ST. LOUIS — Following an off-season full of trade speculation and uncertainty, goaltender Jaroslav Halak is off to the best start of his career. And, at 4-0 for the first time in franchise history, so are the St. Louis Blues.

“He’s more engaged in everything he’s doing. He’s focused,” says Blues
defenseman Barret Jackman. “You can see
his confidence right now the way he’s carrying himself.”

Indeed, Halak is tracking
pucks as well as he has since arriving in St. Louis three years ago. He pitched a shutout against the Panthers in the second game of the season, and he has made several key saves in his three other wins en route to a 1.75 goals-against average and .934 save percentage.

Halak is back
to playing big and getting to the top of the paint — like he did in the 2011-12 season, when he and teammate Brian Elliott captured the second Jennings Trophy in Blues history. Such a performance has been anything but a certainty coming off last season, when a groin injury limited him to 16 games.

“The reason he wasn’t playing down the stretch last season is because he wasn’t healthy,” coach Ken Hitchcock says.

So, after that rocky ending to last season, Halak spent the summer getting healthy and clearing his head.

For the first time in his Blues career, Halak stayed in St. Louis in the off-season to train with strength and conditioning coach Nelson Ayotte. That was partly due to Halak and his wife expecting their first child, but also because Halak knew he needed to come back strong.

Which he has. Halak shed pounds and body fat (now below 10 percent), and he is in the best shape of his career.

The physical change has helped his game. And so has his mental approach to it.

“He
has taken more initiative to be more prepared, to work harder, to
play better,”  goaltending coach Corey Hirsch says. “He’s made an attitude change toward how he’s been viewing
the game. He’s more engaged. Out on the ice he’s more alert; he’s
sharp.”

Halak also invited his former junior goalie
coach, Marc Champagne, to St. Louis this summer. Champagne stayed for a
few weeks and worked with Halak on and off the ice (an opportunity that is not afforded NHL coaches because of league rules).

“We didn’t change his game,” Champagne says. “We just got back to square one and hit the refresh button.”

Says Halak: “I
needed to get back to basics. Seventy to 80 percent of what you do as a goaltender is
mental. You have to trust yourself to be confident.”

The key for Halak going forward will be consistency. Since general manager Doug Armstrong brought Halak to St. Louis in a June 2010 trade, Halak has shown flashes of brilliance but also has been affected by various injuries. A playoff marvel with Montreal in 2010, Halak hasn’t been healthy enough to re-create those playoff heroics with the Blues. Yet.

But the Blues, who named Halak their starter over Elliott — who played brilliantly last April — clearly see Halak as their best option to stop the puck. His performance thus far — including the shutout that gave him 17 with the Blues, a club record — has rewarded that faith. His four season-opening wins are the most of his career, and a win Tuesday night over the Sharks would make him only the second Blues goaltender to open a season with five straight wins. (Brent Johnson had seven straight in 2000-01.) Halak, who is in the final year of a four-year deal, sees one other off-season change as being relevant to his strong start. He and his wife, Petra, became parents of a baby girl over the summer. "It's the best," he says. "I now have somebody who relies on me. ... She's a little angel." You can follow Andy Strickland on Twitter at @andystrickland or email him at strickland.andy@gmail.com. He also writes about the Blues and the NHL at truehockey.com.