ST. LOUIS – Ken Hitchcock’s big decision decided itself.
It was no surprise when the St. Louis Blues coach announced Jaroslav Halak would start in goal in the playoff opener against the San Jose Sharks. After all, his other option, Brian Elliott, didn’t practice because of an unspecified upper-body injury sustained about a week ago.
“Oh yeah, it’s a big decision before Elliott got hurt,” Hitchcock said. “We’re pretty hopeful he’s going to be able to back up tomorrow and get himself ready but we’re not 100 per cent, so we made the decision really yesterday.”
Elliott led the NHL with a 1.56 goals-against average, nine shutouts and a .940 save percentage, and was the Blues’ lone All-Star. Halak was fifth with a 1.97 goals-against average and six shutouts and is playoff-tested, winning a pair of Game 7s to lift the No. 8 seed Canadiens in 2009-10.
Their combined 15 shutouts tied the modern NHL record set by the Chicago Blackhawks in 1969-70, and they’re the first tandem in NHL history with at least six shutouts apiece.
Even though Elliott’s locker stall was empty, Halak was taking nothing for granted and acted as if he didn’t know he would start. He didn’t make much of his prior success, either.
“That happened two years ago almost,” Halak said. “We are here right now and it’s a different team, different playoffs. It’s a new season for everybody. You start from scratch.”
Expectations are high for a franchise that took flight after the Hitchcock hire in early November, going 43-15-11 after a so-so 6-7 start. They’re the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference after a 109-point total that tied for second overall in the NHL.
And, though they’re in the playoffs for just the second time in seven seasons and haven’t won a series in a decade, they swept the four-game season series against the No. 7 Sharks while outscoring them 11-3. Halak and Elliott each shut out San Jose at home.
“It doesn’t matter which goalie you play against, which system you play against,” the Sharks’ Dan Boyle said. “You want to get shots, traffic, screen the goalie, get some ugly rebound goals. That’s usually the key to success.”
Most of the season the Blues have been a defence-oriented outfit, setting an NHL record with just 155 goals allowed. Hitchcock is hopeful the Blues can step it up on offence, too, with difference-makers David Perron, Andy McDonald and Alex Steen healthy after missing huge chunks of the season with concussions and ready to complement a relentless north-south attack designed to grind down opponents.
The shifty Perron was second on the team with 21 goals and totalled 42 points in 57 games. The speedy McDonald had 22 points in 25 games, and Steen, perhaps the team’s best two-way player, had 28 points in 43 games.
“I’m excited to see how we look offensively because I believe we can match against anybody,” Hitchcock said. “And I think we’re going to prove it.”
Perron was sidelined more than a year by a mid-ice blow to the head delivered by the Sharks’ Joe Thornton, who emerged from the penalty box and caught the Blues player by surprise. Thornton texted an apology before Perron’s first game back, the two have spoken, and Perron said it’s a non-factor.
“It was really dirty to me because he was coming out of the box, and how can you know someone’s coming out of the penalty box?” Perron said. “He’s moved on, I’ve moved on, and the biggest thing for us is to beat the Sharks, not to beat Joe Thornton.”
Thornton, the Sharks’ captain, anticipates he’ll be the prime target for heckling.
“We’re not going to get a warm reception there, I hope,” Thornton said. “They’re not going to get a warm reception here in San Jose, I can tell you that much.”
The Blues were the first team to clinch a playoff spot, the Sharks among the last. That was most unusual for a franchise that’s made it to the Western Conference finals the last two seasons.
The Sharks were shut out in both trips to St. Louis, once each by Elliott and Halak, and led in only one of the last three meetings.
“Obviously, they had our number a little bit,” Sharks forward Ryane Clowe said. “We didn’t go over those past games as much moving forward. We’ll have to work to get our chances.”
Both coaches realize it’s a different game now. Nobody’s playing on back-to-back nights, nobody’s worn out from the road, and there’s been plenty of time to concentrate on the strengths and weaknesses of a single opponent.
“The adjustments that happen from game to game are a little more defined when you play in a series,” McLellan said. “There are momentum swings. That’s why playoffs exist, that’s why seven-game series are always exciting, regardless of what sport it is.”
Hitchcock noted that the Boston Bruins lost their first two games of the playoffs at home last spring, and still won the Stanley Cup.
“It’s four games you’ve got to win, not one. Anybody knows losing two games in a row isn’t a big deal, losing at home isn’t a big deal,” Hitchcock said. “It’s a long grind, and you get a chance at redemption right away.”
The Sharks will do their best to capitalize on a decided advantage in the post-season.
“We have some experience. We don’t have enough of it,” McLellan said. “If we would have had enough of it we would have had more success the past two years.
“But we do have some we can draw on, and I believe that we’ll need that at some point.”
AP Sports Writer Josh Dubow in San Jose, Calif., contributed to this report.