Bernie: Halak comes back just in time

2013-02-11T00:25:00Z 2013-03-08T17:53:51Z Bernie: Halak comes back just in timeBY BERNIE MIKLASZ, Post-Dispatch Sports Columnist

I wrote this the night before the Blues’ 2013 season-opening game:

“Can the goaltending tandem of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott replicate the superb consistency that repeatedly saved the Blues last season? I would like to think that Halak and Elliott can do it again, though NHL goaltenders tend to lose their confidence and form without warning.

“Injuries can turn a strength into a weakness. When the Blues lost Halak to an ankle injury in the first-round series against San Jose, Elliott started the final seven postseason games, and sagged to an .820 save percentage in the Blues’ final three losses to cap a second-round sweep by Los Angeles.”

I was skeptical about a repeat performance from the Halak-Elliott combo. But I never imagined seeing the Blues becoming so porous, and helpless, in goal.

The 2011-2012 Blues had the best save percentage and lowest goals-against average in the NHL. But in rushing into the new year without much training time, Halak and Elliott had several factors working against them, including the corrosion caused by a long layoff, the demands of a jammed 48-game schedule and the likelihood of injuries.

But I don’t think anyone expected the historically inept performance we’ve seen so far. The numbers:

• Last season the Blues were No. 1 in the NHL in save percentage (.929). This year they’ve crashed to 30th (last) with an .857 save percentage.

• Last season, Elliott (.940) and Halak (.926) ranked first and sixth in the league, respectively, in save percentage. This year Halak (.889) ranks 32nd in save percentage. Elliott (.853) is 42nd.

• The NHL began listing save percentage as an official statistic in 1982-83. The Blues’ superb 2011-2012 save percentage ranked No. 6 on a list of hundreds of individual team seasons since 1982-83. How far have they fallen? Answer: the Blues’ current .857 save percentage would rank No. 767 on a list of 780 individual team seasons since 1982-83.

Halak has struggled, but at least he’s come up with two low-maintenance shutouts. Elliott’s play brings to mind the comment made by Hall of Fame goaltender Glenn Hall, who famously described his vocation as “60 minutes of hell.”

Elliott was brilliant last season, at least until an injury took Halak down in the postseason. Elliott unraveled in the LA series, and the deterioration has continued into the early phase of the 2013 schedule.

Including the final three games of the LA postseason series, Elliott is 3-7-1 with an .844 save percentage and 3.58 goals-against average in his last 11 starts.

As a tandem, Halak and Elliott shared the pressure and the burden of an excruciating position. Mini-slumps weren’t an issue because the Blues could always turn to the other goaltender to lock things down.

When Halak is injured or unavailable, Elliott gets exposed, and it leaves him shaken. Carrying the load of a No. 1 goaltender is not beneficial to Elliott’s mental health.

Halak went out with a groin strain Feb. 1 in Detroit. Elliott played the final 43 minutes against the Red Wings, then started the next three games.

It’s gotten ugly, with Elliott getting pelted for 16 goals on 82 shots for a save percentage of .805. He was particularly dreadful Saturday when Anaheim overcame a 3-1 deficit to win 5-4 in a shootout at Scottrade Center.

Halak is set to return tonight at home when the Blues get another crack at Los Angeles.

In drooping to 6-4-1 after a 6-1 start, the Blues have wasted their increased scoring rate. The offense didn’t click in home losses to Nashville and Detroit last week, but the overall performance has been fine.

The Blues are tied for third in the NHL with an average of 3.36 goals a game, with much of the pop sparked by the league’s top-ranked power play. But the Blues are highly unlikely to sustain their power play success rate of 36.6 percent, because only four teams have finished above 30 percent since the 1968-69 season.

Obviously, every Blue on the roster is capable of playing better. But even if the forwards and defensemen were playing at a high level, no team can win consistently when its goaltenders are allowing nearly 15 percent of the shots to go in.

The weak performance is even more glaring considering that the Blues are giving up only 22.2 shots a game, the league’s stingiest total.

Elliott was burned for four goals on the first 14 shots against him, then stopped only two of six shots in the shootout. The Blues played a lot better against the Ducks, only to be sabotaged by inadequate goaltending. Elliott’s save percentage at home this season is .772. Last season his home save percentage was .938.

“We don’t need to complicate it right now,” coach Ken Hitchcock said after Saturday night’s fiasco. “It is what it is, there’s no point in beating it up.”

Enter Halak.

After acquiring Halak in a heralded trade with Montreal on June 17, 2010 the Blues gave him a four-year contract worth $15 million. Halak was portrayed as an crucial franchise piece: a solution to the franchise’s chronic instability in goal.

Halak has generally played well for the Blues, posting a 56-33-14 record with a .916 save percentage and 2.24 GAA. But there have been too many lapses in consistency.

The Blues are sinking in the Western Conference standings. After facing the Kings to finish a bleak four-game home stand, the Blues will be on the road for four of the next five games. Only 10 of their next 28 games will be played at Scottrade Center.

This is a critical time.

Starting tonight, the Blues desperately need Halak to emerge as a true No. 1 goaltender. He must stop the hemorrhaging, close a gaping wound and begin the process of saving his team’s season.

Bernie Miklasz is a columnist at the Post-Dispatch. Follow him on twitter @miklasz.

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Bernie Miklasz

You've read Bernie Miklasz in the Post-Dispatch since 1989. Now check out a new video "Breakfast with Bernie" every weekday morning. You'll also see more "Bernie Bytes" around the clock as he posts quick-hit commentaries on a variety of topics.

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