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Under Pressure: Jaroslav Halak

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“Under Pressure” is a preseason series we’ll be running on PHT. For each team in the NHL, we’ll pick one player, coach, GM, mascot or whatever that everyone will be watching closely this season. Feel free to play the song as you read along. Also feel free to go to the comment section and tell us we picked poorly.

For the St. Louis Blues, we pick…goaltender Jaroslav Halak.

Over the past two seasons, St. Louis has been content with the one-two goalie punch of Halak and Brian Elliott. For the most part, it’s served the team well — Halak and Elliott combined to win the Jennings in 2011-12 for fewest goals allowed and have backstopped the Blues to consecutive playoff appearances.

But is appears the timeshare is over.

As per ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun, Halak will head into this season as the club’s No. 1:

The Blues believe Jaroslav Halak has to be their man. Gone in St. Louis is the politically correct spin that the Blues have two capable netminders and both will battle for starts.

The Blues have made a collective, organizational decision that this season is Halak’s to win or lose. They’re handing him the keys, perhaps for the last time, being that Halak is a UFA after the season.

Halak rededicated himself in the offseason, staying in St. Louis to focus on his workouts instead of going home overseas, and showing up to camp dropping his body fat from 14 percent to 8 percent.

This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise.

While Elliott’s been a nice story — arriving on a two-way deal barely above the league minimum, playing himself onto the 2012 All-Star team — Halak was always thought to be the No. 1, partly because of what St. Louis gave up to get him (Lars Eller, Ian Schultz) and partly because of what it paid him ($15 million over four years).

Oh, speaking of that contract…

As LeBrun mentioned, it expires at the end of this season, another reason why Halak’s under immense pressure. At 28, he’s still yet to establish himself as a bell cow-type netminder, one that can log an extensive workload and withstand its rigors.

(Plagued by hand and groin injuries, Halak’s never appeared in more than 57 games in a single season; what’s more, since his lone “bell cow” performance — literally carrying Montreal to the 2010 Eastern Conference finals — he’s won exactly one playoff game.)

So Halak’s auditioning for the No. 1 gig, playing for a new deal and, let’s be honest, shouldering a large portion of St. Louis’ expectations.

The Blues spent over $100 million this summer securing the services of Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, Kevin Shattenkirk, Chris Stewart, Patrik Berglund and Jordan Leopold, a sign they believe their core group is ready to compete for a Cup.

(Editor’s note: Some have noticed we also did an Under Pressure: Alex Pietrangelo earlier this week, which begs the question — why two Blues? Well hey, there’s a lot of pressure in St. Louis this year. Also, the duplicate has nothing to do with a possible snafu in PHT’s editorial schedule that might’ve had two different authors covering the same team. Nope, that definitely did not happen. We hope you’re enjoying the series and are looking forward to next week’s Under Pressure: Barret Jackman.)

For all of our Under Pressure series, click here.

Kassian has ‘no hard feelings’ towards Canadiens

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Zack Kassian never played a regular season game for the Montreal Canadiens. But unless he is held out of Edmonton’s lineup on Saturday, he’ll face his old team as a member of the Oilers.

The Habs acquired Kassian from the Canucks in the summer, after the 25-year-old forward essentially wore out his welcome in Vancouver under the team’s new management. However, an October car accident that Kassian was involved in set forward a number of events that appears to have ultimately changed Kassian’s life for the better.

He told reporters that car accident might’ve been the best thing to happen to his career.

After the accident, he was placed in Stage 2 of the Substance Abuse program and suspended without pay. He was reinstated in December and immediately waived by the Canadiens. A couple of weeks later, he was traded to Edmonton.

And, after opening up about his struggles with alcoholism, he’s since been recalled to the NHL, appearing in eight games for the Oilers, scoring twice and adding four points.

“I’m not looking for any redemption,” said Kassian, as per Sportsnet.

“Me, I got an opportunity to play for the Edmonton Oilers and I’m very thankful for that. I’m not mad at Montreal by any means. If anything I’m mad at myself for screwing up that opportunity. I’m just looking to move forward. Obviously it will feel nice if I get a goal [Saturday] or even better if we get a win but there’s definitely no hard feelings.”

Video: It took only 4:33 of the first period for Hurricanes to build 3-0 lead on Jets

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The Carolina Hurricanes got off to a spectacular start on Friday. Conversely, their opponent, the Winnipeg Jets, got off to a horrendous start.

Before Friday’s game was even five minutes old, the Hurricanes had built a three-goal lead. Phillip Di Giuseppe opened the scoring at 1:43 of the first period. By the 4:33 mark, when Jordan Staal scored, Carolina was up three, forcing a goalie change for the Jets.

Connor Hellebuyck was pulled after allowing three goals on six shots.

Update: It’s 4-0 Hurricanes . . . 10:04 into the game. Yup. Could be a long one tonight in Winnipeg.

Scrivens and slumping Habs face daunting task against McDavid and suddenly high-flying Oilers

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Connor McDavid is kind of good.

In the two games since his return to the Edmonton Oilers, he’s kind of — just kind of — had an impact. Five points in two games — that counts as an impact, right? Oh, and did you see this goal in his return earlier this week?

Since McDavid’s highly anticipated return Tuesday against Columbus, the Oilers have outscored the opposition 12-3 in two games. Small sample size? Yes. Against teams currently not in playoff positions? Yes.

But that’s still very impressive and with him in the lineup, there appears to be a sense of optimism in Edmonton.

Enter the free-falling Montreal Canadiens. Enter goalie Ben Scrivens, who only made his debut for the Habs at the end of December and will face his old team, the Oilers, on Saturday.

In four games with the Habs, Scrivens has been scored on 15 times.

The Habs, without Carey Price, have been in a tumble down the Eastern Conference standings for a long time now. And, really, there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight.

Now, the Habs and Scrivens are tasked with facing McDavid and the suddenly high-flying Oilers.

And Canadiens fans probably aren’t the cheeriest right now, as their team has gone from on the verge of NHL history in October to becoming an afterthought in the playoff picture in February.

In each of their last seven games, the Habs have failed to score more than two goals in regulation. So it would seem that if Montreal is to get a win, Scrivens will need to be as close to perfect as possible.

No pressure.

“Unfortunately, it seems like my whole career has been playing behind teams that don’t have that confidence, except for my time in L.A.,” Scrivens told reporters.

“It’s a challenge as a goalie but all you can do is worry about your job. I can’t go out there and start trying to break pucks out and do anything I’m not supposed to be doing. My job is to try and stop pucks and try and stop as many as I can.”

With the way McDavid and the Oilers have been scoring since the break and his return, it appears that will be a monumental task for Scrivens.

And with the Habs in a 1-8-1 slide in the past 10 games, the timing probably couldn’t get any worse.

 

Stars put Spezza on injured reserve, recall Faksa from AHL Texas

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Sitting three points out of top spot in the Central Division and on the eve of an important divisional clash on home ice with the Chicago Blackhawks, the Dallas Stars have placed center Jason Spezza on injured reserve retroactive to Thursday, the club announced on Friday.

Spezza, 32, was injured during Thursday’s game against the Colorado Avalanche. The Stars can move back to within a point of Chicago for the division lead with a regulation win on Saturday.

In 52 games this season, Spezza has 18 goals and 40 points, which ties him with Patrick Sharp for fourth on the team in total points.

With Spezza out, the Stars recalled 22-year-old forward Radek Faksa from the Texas Stars in the AHL.

Faksa has 15 goals and 26 points in 28 games this season with Texas. In 18 games with the NHL Stars, he has one goal and three points.