ST. LOUIS (AP) — Ken Hitchcock's big decision decided itself.
It was no surprise when the St. Louis Blues coach announced Jaroslav Halak would start in goal in the playoff opener against the San Jose Sharks. After all, his other option, Brian Elliott, didn't practice because of an unspecified upper-body injury sustained about a week ago.
"Oh yeah, it's a big decision before Elliott got hurt," Hitchcock said. "We're pretty hopeful he's going to be able to back up tomorrow and get himself ready but we're not 100 percent, so we made the decision really yesterday."
Elliott led the NHL with a 1.56 goals-against average, nine shutouts and a .940 save percentage, and was the Blues' lone All-Star. Halak was fifth with a 1.97 goals-against average and six shutouts and is playoff-tested, winning a pair of Game 7s to lift the No. 8 seed Canadiens in 2009-10.
Their combined 15 shutouts tied the modern NHL record set by the Chicago Blackhawks in 1969-70, and they're the first tandem in NHL history with at least six shutouts apiece.
Even though Elliott's locker stall was empty, Halak was taking nothing for granted and acted as if he didn't know he would start. He didn't make much of his prior success, either.
"That happened two years ago almost," Halak said. "We are here right now and it's a different team, different playoffs. It's a new season for everybody. You start from scratch."
Expectations are high for a franchise that took flight after the Hitchcock hire in early November, going 43-15-11 after a so-so 6-7 start. They're the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference after a 109-point total that tied for second overall in the NHL.
And, though they're in the playoffs for just the second time in seven seasons and haven't won a series in a decade, they swept the four-game season series against the No. 7 Sharks while outscoring them 11-3. Halak and Elliott each shut out San Jose at home.
"It doesn't matter which goalie you play against, which system you play against," the Sharks' Dan Boyle said. "You want to get shots, traffic, screen the goalie, get some ugly rebound goals. That's usually the key to success."
Most of the season the Blues have been a defense-oriented outfit, setting an NHL record with just 155 goals allowed. Hitchcock is hopeful the Blues can step it up on offense, too, with difference-makers David Perron, Andy McDonald and Alex Steen healthy after missing huge chunks of the season with concussions and ready to complement a relentless north-south attack designed to grind down opponents.
The shifty Perron was second on the team with 21 goals and totaled 42 points in 57 games. The speedy McDonald had 22 points in 25 games, and Steen, perhaps the team's best two-way player, had 28 points in 43 games.
"I'm excited to see how we look offensively because I believe we can match against anybody," Hitchcock said. "And I think we're going to prove it."