The 2012 NHL playoffs are nearly upon us, and the St. Louis Blues are sitting pretty atop the Western Conference. But with two worthy goaltenders and only one net to fill, head coach Ken Hitchcock will soon be forced to address a crucial dilemma, one that could determine his team's fate this spring.
Both Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott have been exceptional between the pipes in 2011-12, each of whom would be a valid choice for Hitchcock to use in the playoffs.
Elliott set the franchise mark this week for most consecutive minutes without allowing a goal (186:33) and most shutouts in a season (nine), remarkably done so in just 34 starts. Together, Halak and Elliott are now tied for the NHL record for most shutouts in a year (15).
Looking beyond the established 82-game schedule, the Blues essentially have three options: Run with Halak, run with Elliott or continue to alternate between the two.
Many would argue that entering the playoffs without a bona fide starter is a poor strategy, and they would have history to back up them up: Nearly every team that has ever won the Stanley Cup has done so by relying on a single goalie throughout the postseason (injury scenarios notwithstanding). If St. Louis was to successfully implement such a game plan, it would be unprecedented in the modern era.
"They've both played good and then there's stretches where one guy's played great, lights out," Hitchock said. "I think the big story for us is how well they've played collectively and individually. I've never had a situation like this where you've had two goalies play this well for this long. It's been good for us."
When asked recently if he already has a starter in mind for Game 1 of the playoffs, the likely Jack Adams Award winner didn't have an answer.
"I don't know if it's a good problem to have, but it's one I'm putting off until the last possible moment," he said. "I don't want to even think about it, because I know if I start thinking about it something's going to happen; a guy might get dinged up or whatever. I just feel like I owe it to both guys to continue to play both."
Halak, 26, was signed to a four-year, $15 million contract in the summer of 2010 in hopes that he would become the franchise cornerstone in net the team lacked. He has, for the most part, lived up to those expectations and played up to his $3,750,000 annual average value.
Halak would be a clear-cut No. 1 on nearly every team in the league, but the emergence of his "backup" has prevented that from happening.
Elliott, who came to the Blues via the Colorado Avalanche, had been relatively mediocre prior to this season. But after being signed as Halak's understudy, it soon became difficult for Hitchcock to keep the former ninth-round pick off the ice.
After posting sub-.900 save percentages the past two seasons and struggling in both Ottawa and Colorado, Elliott has flourished while playing behind St. Louis' suffocating defense, saving .943 percent of shots faced and allowing an average of only 1.48 goals per game in 2011-12. His play for the Blues thus far has earned the University of Wisconsin-Madison product a two-year extension in St. Louis as well a spot on this year's All-Star roster.
Despite Elliott's brilliance, team management would ideally like to see Halak take the reins, as he is the one being paid the big bucks to do so. But Ken Hitchcock being the old school, no-nonsense coach that he is will not be influenced by dollars and cents—he will ice the best team he possibly can, plain and simple.
And if the Blues were to make their decision based purely on this year's numbers, the choice would be easy.
While Halak has been leaned on more heavily, his GAA is 0.52 worse than Elliott's, and his save percentage is 0.16 lower. Obviously there isn't a significant chasm between the two, but the data certainly speaks for itself.
From a statistical perspective, the one key advantage Halak holds over his counterpart is his former playoff success. Halak won nine postseason games in 2010 for the Canadiens and performed admirably throughout their run. Elliott, who started for the Sens in five postseason contests, won just one game in the opening round and allowed 4.14 GAA as Ottawa fell to the Penguins.
All this being said, it's hard to imagine St. Louis can go wrong regardless of how they approach this situation. If the Blues do choose one goalie over the other, at least they would have a very capable alternate in tow. While there's no telling how this battle will play out, it will surely be one of the more entertaining subplots moving forward.
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