BUFFALO, N.Y. • Jaroslav Halak had planned on being busy for an hour Sunday when the Blues faced off against Washington. So when he was pulled less than 20 minutes into the game, after surrendering three goals to the Capitals, he spent 40 minutes after the club’s 4-1 loss on a stationary bike.
Halak’s thoughts may have been scattered as he pedaled away outside the locker room at Washington’s Verizon Center: The laser shot off the stick of Alexander Ovechkin for the Caps’ early lead. The rebound whack by Ovechkin for his second goal of the game. The second-chance effort by Mikhail Grabovski for a 3-0 score, leading to Halak’s removal.
“It was one of the nights for me where everything seemed like it went in,” Halak said Monday. “We all have them. Life brings you challenges and that was one of the obstacles. There’s the next game and still plenty of hockey left, so I can’t let that one affect me. I just have to let it go.”
Similar to his postgame ride Sunday, Halak encountered few bumps in the road during his magnificent start for the Blues. He opened the season 9-2-1 and carried a 2.19 goals-against average and a . 913 save percentage. But since his 2-1 victory over Pittsburgh on Nov. 9, Halak has gone 1-1-1, allowing three goals in each outing with a 3.95 GAA and an .816 save percentage.
Overall, Halak is 10-2-3, but he now owns a 2.48 GAA, which ranks 23rd in the NHL, and a .900 save percentage, which is 34th in the league.
The drop-off could have the Blues dealing with an array of thoughts as they prepare for a road matchup with the Buffalo Sabres at 6 tonight at the First Niagara Center.
Have the past three games, which includes a 7-3 win over Colorado, been a hiccup for Halak, or should there be reason to worry about relying on him as the starter on a club with Stanley Cup aspirations?
It all adds up to fascinating intrigue heading into tonight, when Halak goes up against the goalie who was speculated last summer to be his potential successor, Buffalo’s Ryan Miller.
The Sabres sit last in the NHL standings with a record of 5-16-1, but remarkably Miller has a .919 save percentage, good for 28th in the league.
Miller, 33, is in the final year of a five-year, $31.3 million contract with Buffalo, which may be inclined to move the netminder, who will become an unrestricted free agent this summer. The Blues are believed to be one of the teams that inquired about Miller last offseason, but it appears that that ship has sailed.
Perhaps complicating the situation now for any potential suitors is the fact that the Sabres recently fired general manager Darcy Regier and hired Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine to take over as president of hockey operations. LaFontaine quickly named Ted Nolan as interim head coach.
LaFontaine is in the process of hiring a GM, so in addition to the uncertainty of the team’s plans, there is currently no one with whom to negotiate a deal.
Regardless, the feeling in Buffalo is that the organization, which has created a buzz with the recent changes, can’t afford a complete collapse on the ice, something that is certainly possible without Miller.
The Blues, who would have salary-cap issues to deal with anyway by taking on Miller’s $6.25 million cap hit, don’t seem to be thinking along those lines any longer.
For now, they plan on riding Halak and Brian Elliott, whose recent performances have been promising, and if necessary Jake Allen, who is thriving in the American Hockey League.
Elliott is 3-0-1 with a 1.24 GAA and a .921 save percentage. In his last four appearances, he’s 3-0 with a 1.34 GAA and .921 save percentage.
“Brian has played very well,” coach Ken Hitchcock said. “He’s given us a chance to win every night.”
Allen, meanwhile, is 8-3-1 with a 2.24 GAA and a .928 save percentage with the Chicago Wolves. Many in the organization believe that he has topped out at the AHL level and is ready for prime time.
But it all comes back to Halak, whose play will determine which way the season plays out in net for the Blues. As evidenced by the team’s decision to come back with him against Buffalo after Sunday’s stinger, Halak is the goalie on whom this club will lean.
“He’ll jump back and play well,” Hitchcock said. “We need him, especially on the road ... your goalie has got to be your best player. We’ll need him to have a good game.”
It’s like getting back on a bike, Halak hopes.
“I think everybody needs to look at themselves, and it starts with me,” Halak said. “I need to look at myself and ask myself if I did my best. I know I can play better.”