Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock with your ears plugged tightly, you know about the struggles for Team Slovakia in the 2014 Winter Games. It all came to an end for the Slovaks on Tuesday, as the national team fell to the Czech Republic in their qualifications matchup, 5-3. Slovakia scored three late goals after falling behind 4-0 at 15:41 of the second period.
The most frightening note for Blues fans? Jaroslav Halak was benched for the final two games in favor of Jan Laco, the backup netminder to Michael Leighton in Donbass HC of the KHL.
The loss put an end to Slovakia’s Olympic hopes after an uninspired 0-4 run. Before the team’s three consecutive goals in the last game, Slovakia had been outscored 14-2 in 218:57, spanning across four games. One of these games was a 3-1 loss to Slovenia, which captured its first all-time Olympic victory.
The telling statistic comes in the three preliminary games. The Slovaks allowed 10 goals on 101 shots — which equates to 33.67 shots against per game — for a team save percentage of .900. Halak, who appeared in parts of the first two games against the U.S. and Slovenia, surrendered eight goals against on 48 shots for an underwhelming .857 save percentage.
To add to the problems, Halak did not seem too pleased with his play after the loss to Slovenia while talking with Shawn Roarke of NHL.com:
“I think the first goal, that was a really weak goal for me. I think that kind of set the tone for the rest of the period for us. If we’re going to blame somebody, I’ll take the full blame for this loss.”
The last time he traveled back to his team after the Olympics, the 28-year-old goaltender had a lot to build from. He led his fellow countrymen to a fourth-place finish, losing to the Finns in the bronze medal game. Halak was lights out for the improbable run, stopping 156 of 173 shots (.901 save percentage) in all seven games Slovakia played.
Upon returning to the NHL, Halak picked up where he left off for the Montreal Canadiens, recording a 9-3-3 record and posting two shutouts to close out the season. His storied run in the playoffs is well documented — shutting down the powerhouse offenses of the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, stopping 420 of 450 shots in the first two rounds for an impeccable .933 save percentage — which was the reason for the Blues bringing him aboard.
This Olympic excursion took the opposite path for Halak. He finds himself at a crossroads; he can move on from it or dwell on something he can’t change.
Pick himself up by the bootstraps
Earlier this season, I looked into Halak’s ability to bounce back from a loss. Yes, a lot of that depends on how his teammates react around him. However, only Halak can control whether we see the Halak that shut down both New York teams in late January (67 saves on 71 shots combined in consecutive victories) or the Halak that gave up four goals on 14 shots against the Devils on Jan. 21.
[See related - Jaroslav Halak: The Bounce Back Goaltender]
If Halak does receive starts when the Olympics end, he could see time against struggling offenses Vancouver (Feb. 26), Nashville (March 6) or Edmonton (March 13). However, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock may want to throw him in the fire right off the bat against top teams Anaheim (Feb. 28), Tampa Bay (March 4) or Colorado (March 8).
It will be up to Halak if he can answer the bell in either case.
Stay down in the dumps
The Blues brass will be hoping that it was more the experience rather than the finish that pushed Halak to perform so well after the 2010 Olympics. If that is not the case, Halak could carry his low-hanging head with him back to the NHL season.
Expect the Blues to take instant action if the collective feeling is that Halak has not recovered from his country’s disappointment. Goalie coach Corey Hirsch will be working with Halak more than usual to get his head back to where it should be while Hitchcock is likely to give him some quick starts out of the break, no matter the opponent. After all, the Blues are 15 points from dropping from the top-three playoff spots in the Central Division. Although you never want to lose a game in a tight playoff race, the Blues have a slight cushion to be able to allow Halak to find his game again.
The “Halakness Monster” takes on a new meaning after this Olympic appearance. Will he listen to the first head that tells him to drive his team through a tough Western Conference postseason or will he hear the second head that utters rumblings of disappointments and setbacks?
With hopes high in St. Louis, the consensus hopes that its goaltender is ready to shake off any demons.