ST. LOUIS — After watching goalie Jaroslav Halak turn away 73 of 77 shots during a three-game win streak to the start the season, it's easy to see the difference between this season and last.
He's healthy -- and in a lot better shape.
"Jaro didn't play (last year) because he got hurt," St. Louis Blues coach Hitchcock said of Halak, who played in only 16 games last season because of groin injuries and was 6-5-1. "If he doesn't get hurt he's playing. They both (Halak and Brian Elliott) had sketchy starts to the year and then Jake (Allen) came in and settled it down."
Hitchcock isn't alone in feeling the lockout last season took its toll on many of the league's goaltenders.
"I'm willing to throw out last year like a lot of coaches have to," he said. "There's a dozen teams that needed to throw out last year. In fairness for Jaro we needed to start from scratch again, but he had to do his part, too."
Halak spent the summer in St. Louis, working with the team's training staff and a personal trainer. He bettered his diet, crushed the conditioning program and as a result looks as sharp as he has in years.
"He had to come in better shape so that he didn't put that injury back in play again -- and that's exactly what the doctor told him when he went for the evaluation," Hitchcock said.
The Blues have started a season 3-0 for the first time since 1993-94 and only the third time in franchise history (1969-70 was the other one).
They had Thursday off before resuming practice Friday in preparation for Saturday night's home game against the New York Rangers.
Hitchcock said during all three wins, Halak has been a difference-maker when called upon.
"First period against Nashville it's a different game if they get that first goal," Hitchcock said. "Obviously (against) Florida, he makes four saves the first shift."
In the 3-2 victory over Chicago on Wednesday it was a breakaway stop on Patrick Sharp.
"He's done a heck of a job so far," Hitchcock said. "He's had a real good start to the year."
Halak, who has the NHL's best goals-against average at home since joining the Blues in 2010 (1.87), praised the work done by his teammates against the Blackhawks.
"I think we can play really good hockey," he said. "We just have to play as a unit and be patient out there. In the first period we were kind of pumped up, we gave up a few odd-man rushes. Then we calmed down and we were more patient on the blue line."
Alexander Steen collected the late game-winning goal Wednesday and has a goal in each of the Blues' first three games. He had eight goals in 40 games a year ago.
"He plays a very intelligent game," Hitchcock said. "He's a very smart player."
Chicago coach Joel Quenneville was not happy his team allowed a late 3-on-1 rush that led to Steen's winning goal, calling it a "brutal loss. We have to get that game to overtime."
In a much-hyped game between bitter rivals and Western Conference heavyweights, a few mistakes were probably inevitable.
"You just knew the way the game was going to go, somebody was going to get an odd-man rush because both teams gave up a few," Hitchcock said. "The game was so revved up that you got caught in no-man's land a few times."
For a game played in early October, at times it had all the look and feel of a playoff game.
"It did during the actual competition, but I think everybody knows this is the third hockey game of the year," Hitchcock said. "It felt like a playoff game. It had the level of intensity of a good playoff game. But I think everybody was able to move forward quickly postgame knowing that we've got to get ready for Game 4."
Hitchcock has spent the past several days talking about needing more information about his team that will be provided in the first few games.
What was learned Wednesday vs. the Blackhawks?
"Any mistake we made was an odd-man rush or a scoring chance," Hitchcock said. "And any time we weren't firm and hard on the puck they took it off us and went right back down our throat. Those are really good lessons to learn moving forward and I know next time we play those guys we're going to play better."