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Halak, Hitchcock had heated disagreement

Halak, Hitchcock had heated disagreement

St. Louis Blues v Edmonton Oilers

Blues goaltender Jaroslav Halak deflects a shot in second period action during a game between the St. Louis Blues and the Edmonton Oilers on Friday, March 1, 2013, at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. Photo by Chris Lee,

The Blues’ first-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Kings had several confrontations on the ice. It also included one off the ice.

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock and goaltender Jaroslav Halak had a heated disagreement outside the club’s locker room the morning of Game 4 in Los Angeles, multiple sources have confirmed to the Post-Dispatch.

The argument was triggered by Halak being late for the Blues’ team meeting before their game-day practice and it escalated when the goaltender vented about his ice time this season, particularly after returning from a groin injury at the end of the regular season.

“These are internal discussions between a player and coach,” Hitchcock said when asked about the incident on Saturday, one day after the Kings eliminated the Blues in the Western Conference quarterfinals.

Halak was unavailable for comment and his agent, Allan Walsh, declined comment.

Halak did not play in the Blues’ final 14 games of the regular season and didn’t make an appearance in the playoffs. Hitchcock said before the series began that Brian Elliott was “the guy we’re going to go with.”

Sources say that Halak’s frustration with Hitchcock was not focused as much on whether he should have been the team’s starting goalie against the Kings as much as it was the buildup of the way he was handled earlier in the season. He was especially unhappy about not receiving the assignment against Chicago in the regular-season finale.

On March 5, Halak gave up five goals on 21 shots against the Kings, allowing them to rally for a 6-4 victory after the Blues held a 4-1 lead in the second period. After the game, the club promoted rookie Jake Allen from Peoria, and he started six of the team’s next seven games.

Allen won five straight games before being involved in a 3-2 loss on March 19. Halak then received four of the next five starts. But on April 1, he exited at the end of the first period because of his second groin injury of the season.

Halak was put on the Blues’ injured-reserve list and expected to miss approximately three weeks. He worked himself back into position to play toward the end of the regular season and was miffed according to a source when Hitchcock told reporters Halak wouldn’t be available until the playoffs.

Before the Blues’ second-to-last regular-season game, Halak told the Post-Dispatch that he could start if called upon by the coaching staff.

“I would tell them, ‘Yes,’” Halak said. “Obviously I would love to get to game action. Like I said, it’s up to them whether they will play me or not. (Elliott) has been playing great and he deserves to play, so we’ll see what happens.”

Halak served as the backup to Elliott, marking the first time he had suited up since April 1.

The team had a chance to clinch home-ice advantage in the playoffs in the regular-season finale. The Blackhawks already had won the Presidents’ Trophy and elected to use a roster loaded with minor-league players to face the Blues.

Halak, according to sources, felt that he should have started the game as a tune-up for the playoffs. But with a victory securing home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, the team gave the nod to Elliott. He made 22 saves for a 3-1 win.

Elliott was tabbed the starter for the playoffs, and according to sources, the buildup in Halak’s frustration began to show in practice. At the morning skate before Game 1 against LA, several within the organization took notice that Halak was giving less than a full effort.

Then in Game 2, when Elliott went down in the third period after a collision with Kings captain Dustin Brown, Halak’s demeanor on the bench was noted by many in the club and by fans attending the game.

While Elliott lay face down, Halak did not begin to stretch or warmup in anticipation of entering the game, as is widely the custom when the goalie on the ice is shaken up. Elliott remained in the game, and the Blues won 2-1 in overtime, but the incident was discussed for several days within the organization.

Halak finished the season with a record of 6-5-1 with a 2.14 goals-against average and an .899 save-percentage in 16 appearances.

Acquired in June 2010 from the Montreal Canadiens in a trade for forward Lars Eller, Halak is 59-38-15 in three seasons with the Blues. A year ago, he shared the Jennings Trophy with Elliott after the two combined for the fewest goals-against in the NHL. He has 16 shutouts with the Blues, tying him for the franchise lead with Glenn Hall.

Halak, 27, has one more season remaining on a four-year, $15 million contract with the Blues. He is due $4.5 million in salary in 2013-14 with a salary-cap hit of $3.75 million. Meanwhile, Elliott has one more season remaining on a two-year, $3.6 million contract with the club. He will be paid $1.9 million in ‘13-14 with a cap hit of $1.8 million.Allen will be a restricted free-agent on July 1, after completing his three-year entry-level contract.

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Jeremy Rutherford is the lead Blues beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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