Blues playoff chances will hinge on Jaroslav Halak

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The Blues have a new captain. They have new veterans to show the young core the way. They have two of the best young offensive blueliners in the league. They have players that were acquired last season who have had an entire offseason to get comfortable in their new city. Everything looks like it’s in order for the Blues to have a bounce back season this year. Yet still, no matter which way you look at the team, their success still comes back to one vitally important player: Jaroslav Halak.

Expectations were sky-high when he was acquired from the Montreal Canadiens for Lars Eller and Ian Schultz. He was coming off of a playoff run where he almost single-handedly led the Habs to the Eastern Conference finals. The Habs chose Carey Price, the Blues chose to obtain his services and sign him for a 4-year deal, and the rest is history.

Or is it?

Last season the Blues were supposed to take the next step in their progression as Western Conference contenders. They finished 6th in the West in 2008-09 and had all the makings of a young team on the rise. The 2009-10 season featured a plethora of injuries that caused a predictable slip in the standings. But last year? Last year, a healthy team was supposed to pick up where they left off in 2009. Long-term injuries to TJ Oshie and David Perron didn’t help—but there was more to it than just injuries.

Aside from the injuries, the Blues were supposed to have an elite goaltender who could help steal games and lead them back to the playoffs. His pedestrian numbers explain that he wasn’t an elite goaltender last year—but it was more than just statistics. David Rogers over on Frozen Notes explains that Halak’s second year in St. Louis will need more consistency:

“The four-year, $15 million question. I think most fans are willing to give Halak a pass on his first season in St. Louis as the number one goaltender. They won’t be able to overlook two consecutive mediocre years. We’ve seen him be outstanding and unbeatable at times yet it’s quite difficult to forget the times he has been out of position and beaten repeatedly from similar angles.”

Halak’s going to need to step up if the Blues want to fill all of their potential. The Canadiens traded him because he wanted to be paid like “the man.” Now it’s time for him to start earning it. If he can put together a season like his last year in Montreal, the Blues are a good bet to sneak into the playoffs next season. But if he’s the inconsistent, average goaltender from a year ago, there’s no way the Blues will be able to reach the postseason in the tough Western Conference.

He’s had a year to get used to his new surroundings. He has a great new mask. Now fans in St. Louis hope he’ll have a great new game to go with the new headgear in the not-so-new city.

What is wrong with the Sharks?

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Not that long ago, the San Jose Sharks appeared well on their way to winning the Pacific Division title.

On March 14, they had a seven-point lead on both Anaheim and Calgary. Gone is that advantage. Not only have the Ducks surged back into the fight for the division, but the Sharks have lost five in a row and are having a terrible time of late creating any offense.

Their struggles hit a new low Friday with a 6-1 loss to the Dallas Stars, a team with its own flaws and nowhere close to a playoff position.

At one point midway through the second period, the Sharks trailed the Stars by four goals and had only six lousy shots on goal. During this skid, San Jose has scored only five goals.

Earlier this week, members of the Sharks said they weren’t terribly worried about this losing streak. The losses, they had said, were in close games, which is true: San Jose lost three consecutive one-goal games.

“When I look at the losing streak, we dominated some of those games for long periods and found ways to lose. You never like to lose, but I’m not that concerned,” Sharks coach Pete DeBoer told CSN Bay Area. “We’ve got to obviously end it. We’ve got to get healthy. I don’t see a bunch of symptoms of a team that can’t get this fixed pretty quickly.”

This, however, was a blowout. Adam Cracknell recorded the hat trick, pushing his single-season career-high in goals to 10.

The performance at one point forced DeBoer to take a timeout, in which he expressed his displeasure.

Making matters worse for the Sharks: Defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic left the game early in the third period and was put under further evaluation. He didn’t return.

The Sharks visit the Nashville Predators on Saturday.

Halak and the Islanders defeat Penguins, move into wild card spot

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Quite a hockey game between the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday.

It offered plenty to enjoy — Phil Kessel‘s dominant but unfruitful shift in overtime, a combined 86 shots on goal between both teams, a showcase of skill from the likes of John Tavares and Sidney Crosby, and two strong goaltending performances from Jaroslav Halak and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Josh Ho-Sang, who wears No. 66, which is just fine in the eyes of Mario Lemieux, set up Brock Nelson‘s goal in the second period.

The Islanders and their fans probably aren’t hung up on style points at this juncture of the season. They just care about wins and points in the standings, and those are exactly what New York accomplished with a 4-3 shootout win in Pittsburgh.

Anthony Beauvillier and Tavares scored for the Islanders in the shootout. Halak made 37 stops, including a game-saver in overtime off Matt Cullen. Halak trapped the puck, which was right on the goal line, between his legs on a chance from in front. The play was reviewed but no goal.

The win gives the Islanders 82 points, which is the same total as the struggling Boston Bruins.

However, the Islanders, with one game in hand on the Bruins, take over the final wild card spot in the East for now.

Video: Friday night fights between Bolts and Red Wings

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Not much offense — actually, just one goal midway through the second period as of the writing of this post — between the Detroit Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday.

But there has definitely been some animosity between the two clubs.

Tempers flared late in the first period, with Adam Erne and Andreas Athanasiou getting involved in a spirited scrap — and Athanasiou unsuccessful in his attempt at the take-down.

The bad blood continued in the second period with Greg McKegg and Anthony Mantha getting involved in a fight, and Mantha — given the instigator — landing a couple of shots with McKegg on the ice.

 

NHL, MLB player unions support U.S. women hockey players’ boycott

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Unions representing NHL and Major League Baseball players are backing U.S. Women’s National Hockey team players’ decision to boycott next week’s world championships because of a wage dispute.

The NHL Players’ Association posted a note on its Twitter account on Friday saying it supports the U.S. players while panning USA Hockey’s bid to stock the team with replacements. The NHLPA says the decision to go with replacement players “would only serve to make relations, now and in the future, much worse.”

Earlier in the day, the MLB Players Association encouraged all women hockey players to stand united behind their national team colleagues.

Read more: USA Hockey says it will not offer living wage, as dispute with women’s national team continues

The Twitter messages were posted a day after USA Hockey announced it would begin gauging interest of replacement players to compete at the tournament, which opens next Friday in Plymouth, Michigan.

Players are seeking a four-year contract that includes payments outside the six-month Olympic period.