Jaroslav Halak practiced with the Blues on Thursday for the first time since leaving Game 2 of the team’s first-round playoff series last April.
Halak, half of the Blues’ goaltending tandem that won the Jennings Trophy last season, had hoped that his return would have come sooner. But the good news for the Blues and Halak is the delay had everything to do with the NHL lockout and nothing to do with the high-ankle sprain that abruptly ended his season.
Last July, Halak’s left leg was still experiencing discomfort from the injury that occurred when teammate Barret Jackman inadvertently barreled into the goalie in the second period against the San Jose Sharks.
But Halak said Thursday that he was fully recovered in time for the scheduled start of training camp in September, so he’ll certainly be ready when the Blues open camp over the weekend if the labor agreement is approved by the players.
“I felt 100 percent in August,” Halak said. “I was good to go. Since then, I was just waiting like everybody else.”
Halak, 27, who has two years left on his original four-year, $15 million contract, arrived from Slovakia and didn’t waste any time jumping on the ice with teammates Thursday.
“It feels great,” he said. “It’s been a long time since we practiced together. It’s been a long offseason of training. Usually you get two months, three months at most. Right now, everybody has had seven or eight months, so I think everybody is ready. We need to get back quickly and start playing where we left off in the regular season.”
That’s when Halak shared with Brian Elliott the Jennings Trophy, which goes to the team that allows the fewest goals in the regular season. They gave up just 165 goals, while also combining for 15 shutouts — a Blues’ record.
Halak got the nod to start the playoffs, but exited after the early collision and was not seen again. He was 1-1 in the playoffs, after a regular season in which he posted a record of 26-12-7 and a career-best 1.96 goals-against average.
“You play the whole season and then playoffs come ... that’s when you want to play and it happened,” Halak said. “Unfortunately you can’t pick when or what will happen to you.”
Elliott helped the Blues to a 3-0 victory over San Jose in Game 2 and completed a five-game series win over the Sharks.
But with Elliott unable to shoulder the load in the second round, along with other team-wide deficiencies, Los Angeles swept the Blues in four games.
“It was tough obviously,” Halak said, “but ‘Ells’ had a great season. I think the first round, he played really good hockey. I think LA deserved to go to the next round, and obviously they showed everybody that they could win the Cup, and they did.”
As high-ankle sprains tend to do, Halak’s injury lingered into the summer, keeping him off the ice until late July. But when he was finally healthy, Halak resumed training in Slovakia and began preparations for training camp in September, which is when the lockout went into effect.
“I was getting my workout every day and I was skating, having goalie practices every day, so I felt good,” Halak said. “But obviously it is different to practice with the whole team than a few guys that are shooting on you.”
In November, Halak signed a one-month contract with Lausitzer of the German Bundesliga. But he played just one game with the club, winning in a shootout.
“I was going to go there and stay there for a month, but then I had to go back home and take care of some stuff,” Halak said. “Then in mid-December, it looked like we were going to start playing in the NHL, so I stayed at home. Then my contract (in Germany) expired, so I just stayed at home and waited. I was hoping that it would start soon.
“I’ve been skating on my own since then, so it feels good to be back and get a practice in.”
Asked about having just six days to prepare for a 48-game season, Halak said, “Practice, practice, practice… you try to get better every day and you try to get used to each other again.”
Some believe the Blues will have an advantage during the shortened season, which will include several games on back-to-back nights, because they have goalies in Halak and Elliott who rotated games and shared success last season.
“If you look at the schedule, we’ve got 48 games,” Halak said. “It’s going to be game after game after game. We have to be both ready and just play one game at a time. Don’t worry about the next game.
“We could repeat the same thing, or one of us, something could happen. But hopefully, we can both play at the level we played last year. I know it’s not going to be easy. But everybody thinks that we can do it, and we’ll see what happens.”