There is always a danger of reading too much into first-week results in the NHL. For proof, consider how it started last year, with the Detroit Red Wings getting blown out of the rink by the St. Louis Blues 6-0 in their opener – Jimmy Howard getting pulled, the Red Wings looking old and creaky, making you wonder if this finally was the year the bottom fell out on their team, after 21 consecutive years in the playoffs.
Meanwhile, St. Louis – which was a popular choice to compete for the Stanley Cup after coming close to winning the President’s Trophy – had a fabulous January, going 6-1 and making everybody believe they were for real.
Instead, it went just the other way. The Red Wings got better as the season went along – putting up with youthful mistakes – and by the time the playoffs rolled around, they were their usual dangerous selves. They knocked off Anaheim in a mild first-round upset and then in the second round, pushed the Chicago Blackhawks harder than anyone else before, losing to them in seven games.
St. Louis always seems good out of the gate – a credit to coach Ken Hitchcock, who prepares his team as well or better than anyone – but last year, when the calendar turned to February, they completely lost it. They dropped five games in a row, were outscored 26-11 and had such a complete about-face that there were some dark hints that maybe the coach was on the hot seat.
The Blues eventually got back on track, and then pushed Los Angeles to the limit in a tough physical first-round series, but they were never really the match of the Kings in goal, which is why Jaroslav Halak’s strong play in the first two games this season is so noteworthy.
Halak was in goal for a 19-save shutout Saturday night as the Blues pasted the Florida Panthers 7-0.
A 7-0 win, no matter when it happens, or against whom, is an attention grabber. 7-0 gets you noticed.
For Halak, it was his 17th shutout since joining the Blues from Montreal in that controversial Lars Eller trade (more about later), which he accomplished in his 121st game as a Blue. It’s a team record, surpassing the mark held by the legendary Glenn Hall, who had 16 shutouts in 140 games with St. Louis between 1967 and 1971. Halak’s shutout ratio with the Blues is one for every 7.11 games-played, which is the best in the NHL since he came over from Montreal in June of 2010, the Canadiens swapping their playoff hero of the previous spring for Eller, an unproven former first-rounder from the hockey hotbed of Denmark.
But Eller is proving his worth to the Canadiens now (when is your No. 3 centre really your No. 1 guy? Right here, right now). Halak, meanwhile, is showing the form that he had when he first arrived in St. Louis, where he posted three shutouts in his first nine starts. The Blues used a two-headed goaltending monster two years ago and almost divided the work evenly among three goalies (Halak, Brian Elliott and Jake Allen) last year, largely because Halak suffered his annual injury.
This year, with the Blues having a fairly light schedule through October, Halak will be the starter for the next couple of weeks, so they can genuinely allow him to emerge as the No. 1 man, which is what they want to see from him this year.
Neither the Kings, who seem to be able to win in the playoffs, nor the Blues, who seemingly can’t, tend to score a ton, but L.A. just has more players – notably Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter – that can conjure something out of nothing. St. Louis needs to grind for everything.
They had seven different goal-scorers in the win over the Panthers; and thus far, have 10 different players on the board with at least one goal, through two games. Eventually, Vladimir Tarasenko may be their best hope of developing a game breaker, but right now, they are relying mostly on a line centred by David Backes that includes Alex Steen and T.J. Oshie.