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St. Louis goaltender Brian Elliott (Mark J. Terrill)
St. Louis goaltender Brian Elliott (Mark J. Terrill)

GLOBE ON HOCKEY

Injuries, lack of depth catching up with the Blues Add to ...

Talk to an NHL general manager about what it takes to win the Stanley Cup and the mantra is depth, depth, depth.

The Stanley Cup playoffs are a war of attrition. The teams that can best replace their fallen or ineffective players will thrive. Look how the Philadelphia Flyers are struggling because their big star, centre Claude Giroux, appears to be playing hurt and was no match for the New Jersey Devils' Zach Parise on Thursday night.



When you are filling key positions by committee, the need for depth is more acute. That's why the St. Louis Blues, the league's textbook defensive team this season, are going to lose their second-round series to the Los Angeles Kings barring a medical miracle.

Under head coach Ken Hitchcock, the Blues were a defensive powerhouse this season. Goaltenders Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott copped the Jennings Trophy by allowing the fewest goals-against during the regular season.

While Halak had some experience as a full-time No. 1 goaltender, powering the Montreal Canadiens to the Eastern Conference final in 2010, it was not extensive. Elliott washed out in stints with the Ottawa Senators and Colorado Avalanche.

Halak did not start the season well but when Hitchcock replaced Davis Payne as head coach he hit upon a solution. The new coach installed his trademark five-man defensive game, which only requires the goaltender to be a little above average with gusts to excellent when the odd big save is required.

Hitchcock also started using Elliott more and he thrived. Halak, in turn, improved his game, perhaps because of the competition for starts. By the end of the season, Halak was fifth in the NHL with a 1.97 goals-against average and had a .926 save percentage. Elliott's numbers were the best in the NHL - a 1.56 GAA and .940 save percentage.

However, neither goaltender had the number of starts most No. 1 goaltenders have, with Halak at 46 and Elliott at 36. Halak, though, was trending toward the No. 1 job by the end of the season, although Elliott got hurt with about a week to play. Thus Halak was in the net when the Blues opened the playoffs against the San Jose Sharks.

But a collision with teammate Barrett Jackman in the second game of that series resulted in an ankle injury and Halak has not played since. He will not play in the second-round series against the Kings and the Blues are down 3-0.

This forced Elliott to go outside his comfort zone. He was recovered from his injury but he had to play too much and assume the accompanying expectations.

This problem takes a while to assert itself, so the Blues managed to get past the Sharks in the first round. But now the burden is wearing on Elliott. He was not sharp in the Kings' 4-2 win Thursday.

Also not helping was the loss of the Blues' best defenceman, Alex Pietrangelo, in the first game against the Kings. Another domino was the play of St. Louis's top shutdown pair, Jackman and Kevin Shattenkirk. They are a combined minus-four in the last two games. Even though Pietrangelo returned to the lineup for Game 3 on Thursday and played well enough, he was probably not 100-per-cent.

This was too much for Elliott, who made his sixth consecutive start and seventh straight appearance in the Blues' net on Thursday. So even though Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick was a little under the superb standard he established in this year's playoffs, the Blues still could not capitalize, not when Elliott coughed up four goals on 22 shots for an .818 save percentage. His playoff save percentage is now .905, which is 14th among the goaltenders who have appeared in this year's playoffs.

With no replacement in sight, the Blues are not in an enviable position.

Follow on Twitter: @dshoalts

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