Stronger, leaner Halak hoping injuries are a thing of the past

News-DemocratSeptember 30, 2013 

— While there are three goalies capable of starting for the St. Louis Blues --including top prospect Jake Allen in the minors -- some may consider it a surprise to see Jaroslav Halak back in the No. 1 role.

Limited to 16 games because of two groin injuries last season, Halak also took his case for more playing time to Blues coach Ken Hitchcock during the first-round playoff loss to the Los Angeles Kings.

"It's behind us, there's nothing I can do about last season," Halak said. "Just learn from it."

Halak rehabbed the groin and is back with the Blues after spending the summer in St. Louis for the first time instead of returning to his native Slovakia.

The veteran goaltender wasn't just here for Fair St. Louis and the summer concert series at Verizon Amphitheater, either.

He did some serious work with Blues strength and conditioning coach Nelson Ayotte and other personal trainers, changing to a healthier diet while hitting the workouts far harder in an effort gain strength and put the groin issues in the past.

As a result Halak lost 14 pounds, but more importantly lowered his body fat from 13.5 percent to 8 percent.

"It was kind of a mix of everything, cardio and working out with Nelson trying to make myself stronger," Halak said. "It's paid off so far. He's been pushing me."

Early in camp, Hitchcock felt Halak looked quicker and more mobile on his skates.

"Jaro's had a great summer, hre, he stayed here and with his training probably has taken it to a level it hasn't been to before," Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong said. "He looks great and he's focused. He's excited about the challenge that lies ahead of him.

"He's given himself the best opportunity to be able to log a lot of minutes and to stay healthy."

And after a rigorous summer of running on a treadmill, tough exercise and an improved diet, Halak is hoping Blues fans will see his best goaltending yet.

"I signed for four years," Halak said of the four-year, $15 million deal he signed after being traded here following a magical playoff run with Montreal, a deal that expires after this season. "I had some goals and I haven't accomplished them yet. For now I've got one more year and I'm looking forward to this one. There's always a new challenge.

"Over the course of the season everybody goes through some adversity, goes through some ups and downs. One day at a time, that's my approach."

Halak's balky groin has been an issue at times. He also was injured during the 2012 playoffs in a collision with teammate Barret Jackman.

As a result, Halak's playoff contributions to the Blues during the past two seasons are one win, one loss and a lot of "what ifs."

The frustration was evident during an injury-marred 2012-13 that saw Halak go 6-5-1 with three shutouts in 16 games, a 2.14 goals-against average and .899 save percentage.

"It was that kind of season; I couldn't stay healthy," said Halak, who has 16 shutouts in 119 games with the Blues. "I worked out hard this summer to try to make the area I got hurt a little stronger and hopefully it will stay good for the season. I feel good now, I have no discomfort whatsoever. We'll see how it goes."

During the preseason, Halak offered a mixed bag of results. He was 1-1 with a 2.37 goals-against average and .891 save percentage, allowing six goals on 55 shots.

A year ago, Halak's injury was followed by inconsistency from Elliott that preceded a hot streak by then-rookie Allen.

Both Halak and Elliott can become free agents after this season and Allen is waiting for another opportunity, so the Blues' goaltending will be under the microscope this season.

What was considered a major strength two seasons ago when Halak and Elliott combined for 16 shutouts and the NHL's best goals-against average has once again become at least an area of concern.

"I feel good on the ice, that's probably the most important thing," Halak said. "Obviously whoever plays the best will play, that's the bottom line. Everybody has to bring their best every game.

"It's up to me now to try to maintain everything and keep building on the summer. Just keep getting better."

So what did Halak learn during his first full summer in St. Louis, besides avoiding the region's toasted ravioli, cheese fries and the scrumptious frozen custard at Ted Drewes?

"Everybody said it was going to be hot and it wasn't too bad," he said. "Everybody said it was the coldest summer in a long time so I enjoyed it. I had fun."

Contact reporter Norm Sanders at 239-2454, nsanders@bnd.com or on Twitter @NormSanders

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