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Halak prepares for the grind

Halak prepares for the grind

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Goaltender Jaroslav Halak was unable to spend one minute this summer working on the area of his game that needed the most attention following his first season with the Blues.

Neither a goalie coach,a trainer, nor even Halak himself could replicate the rigors that he experienced his first time as a No. 1 netminder — the mental fatigue, playing on back-to-back nights and shaking off sub-par performances. It became obvious that Halak, despite finishing with a respectable record of 27-21-7 in a career-high 57 starts, was affected by the grind.

Preparing for a more consistent campaign in 2011-12, Halak has addressed concerns the Blues had about his fitness with a productive summer of training that included drenching bike rides through the hills of his native Bratislava, Slovokia. But whether he's better equipped to handle the ups and downs of an 82-game season, not even he knows that answer.

"I don't think you can do anything to prepare yourself mentally," Halak, 26, said. "The big thing is I went through it already, so now I know what to expect. It's a big challenge, but I'm really looking forward to it."

In a season when a trip to the playoffs is a must for an organization that's been advertising its arrival for several years, Halak's stability may be the leading factor whether the Blues meet those expectations.

"To have the season we expect to have, we're going to need to be clicking on all cylinders, and that includes our goaltender," Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said. "We think that he's going to be more prepared for the journey that's ahead of us, having been through the experience as the No. 1 guy. We're expecting a real good season out of Jaro and, quite honestly, we're going to need a (it)."

Halak opened last year 8-1-1 with a 1.46 goals-against average, a .944 save percentage and three shutouts to propel the Blues to a 9-1-2 record, the best start in team history through 12 games.

"He was on fire," Blues defenseman Barret Jackman said. "The hot start that we had last year was probably about 75 percent his doing. He played outstanding."

But over the next few months, Halak lost his early magic. He had back-to-back games in which he gave up a combined 13 goals, followed later by a shutout and then a stretch when he gave up four-plus goals in five of seven games.

"There were moments of brilliance and then moments where we saw the effects of it being his first year as a No. 1 guy," Blues goaltending coach Corey Hirsch said. "Quite frankly, there were things we expected. But we'd like to try and even that out a little more obviously."

After his eye-popping start, Halak went 14-19-5 in his next 38 starts, with a 2.95 GAA and an .896 save-percentage.

Hirsch acknowledged that injuries to Jackman and Roman Polak among others were a factor "you're giving up more chances," Hirsch said but he added that it's part of learning to be a No. 1.

"For me, as a pro, it's your game preparation," said Hirsch, who played 108 NHL games, mainly with Vancouver, before the Blues hired him part-time last season. "If you have back-to-back games on a Friday and Saturday, and you have a good game Friday, make sure you're prepared for Saturday. Don't take your foot off the gas. For me, Jaro's technical play is good as anyone in the league. It's his mental preparation."

This season, Hirsch and Halak will have more time to work on that aspect, as the Blues have hired Hirsch full-time.

"Not many people think it's important, but I think with goalies, (goalie coaches) are important for a team," Halak said. "They need to help each other out all the time. We can watch the videos together, so it will be great."

The two will continue to do more homework on the Western Conference. After playing his entire career in the Eastern Conference, Halak had his first full dose of the West last season. He went 7-2-1 with a 1.76 GAA and a .940 save percentage against the East, while going 20-19-6 with a 2.65 GAA and a .903 save percentage against his new conference.

"We didn't face these teams too many times during the season (in Montreal)," he said. "To play against these teams is different. I'm getting to know the players more."

Despite a hand injury that sidelined him for 11 games, Halak finished the season strong, going 5-1-1 with a 1.42 GAA and a .946 save percentage in his last seven games. He says that his hand is healed and also insists that there shouldn't be any lingering questions about his conditioning.

"I think my conditioning was pretty good," he said. "Some days you feel more tired than other ones. You travel more (in the West) and some days it's going to affect your game for sure."

But quietly last year, it was a concern.

"I do think myself that his fitness dropped," Hirsch said. "I just think the previous year was a hard year for him (because Halak played through the Eastern Conference finals and then was traded). When do you train? He really didn't have time to prepare. But he's in really good shape now."

Halak, who weighed 180 pounds last season, has lost about three pounds and trimmed off 2.5 percent body fat this summer.

"I was just trying to get a little bit stronger," Halak said. "A No. 1 (goalie) has to be ready for at least 60 games. That's a lot. We'll see what the number (of games) is at the end of the season. But you have to be ready."

That's what Halak, who is entering the second year of a four-year, $15 million contract, learned last season. "Even a bad experience is an experience," he said.

Those experiences add up.

"With goaltending, you're looking at a 3-5 year process of really learning and building a goaltending into what you want," Hirsch said. "Jaro is what, 26? That's still pretty young for a goalie. You have to be patient."

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