Don’t look now, but the St. Louis Blues are making things very interesting at the top of the Western Conference. Technically the Notes are fourth, but St. Louis is one point behind Central Division rival Detroit and the Wings have played one more game. The team has gone 6-0-1 in 2012 and along with the genius of early-season replacement Ken Hitchcock behind the bench, it’s not hard to figure out why things are going so right: The Blues boast two of the hottest goaltenders in the league.
Jaroslav Halak was a known quantity when he came to town in a controversial trade with Montreal (are there any other kinds in La Belle Province?) and after figuring out how to bear the burden of great expectations, has become a fortress of late.
Not to be outshined, the once left-for-dead Brian Elliott has posted a 1.68 goals-against average and five shutouts, both good for second in the NHL.
Elliott in particular has been a revelation after unsuccessful stints in Ottawa and Colorado. He signed with the Blues as a free agent over the summer and St. Louis goalie coach Corey Hirsch liked what he saw immediately.
“My first impression was that he’s very focused,” Hirsch said. “He’s got a very good work ethic. His approach – he prepares for a game as well as any goalie I’ve seen. He’s juggling tennis balls, he soaks in a lot of info when watching video…the game for him, as the saying goes, is the easy part.”
The key to turning around Elliott’s game was reeling in his aggressive tendencies. Having the netminder deeper in the net was part of it, as was more structure. That’s something Halak already had down pat.
“Very structured, very consistent,” Hirsch said of the Slovak. “He’s been taught very well.”
Halak is currently experiencing his best run for the Blues since arriving in the summer of 2010. He’s on a 9-0-3 run, cleaving his GAA down to 2.08 in the process. The fact a Hitchcock team is almost always a defensive team certainly helps, but Hirsch maintains you still need a solid last line of defense.
“Give ‘Hitch’ a lot of credit,” he said. “His system is very friendly to goalies. But they’ve bailed us out when we’ve needed them.”
Other than being hot, the real intrigue revolving around the Blues comes in forecasting the playoffs. St. Louis is no fun to play against and with two netminders playing out of their skulls, Hitchcock can give Elliott and Halak plenty of rest in preparation for the post-season.
Boston GM Peter Chiarelli told me last week that his starter, Tim Thomas, functions best when held to approximately 55 starts in a season if the Bruins intend on making a Stanley Cup run. While Halak (or Elliott, for that matter) has way fewer miles on the odometer than the reigning Conn Smythe winner, it’s worth noting that the most regular season appearances by a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender since the lockout is 62, by Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury.
Are the Blues a Cup dark horse? Offense isn’t a huge strength right now, but it’s not a liability, either. The team sits firmly ensconced in the NHL middle when it comes to goals for. Special teams must improve, particularly the power play, but it’s nothing a deadline trade and some hard work can’t boost.
St. Louis has leadership, youthful vigor and two outta-sight netminders. I wouldn’t want the task of having to take four games out of seven from them come springtime.
Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN’s associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.