Originally posted on Fox Sports Midwest  |  Last updated 4/9/12
ST. LOUIS Alex Pietrangelo rushed to pack a large duffle bag after a recent loss to the Phoenix Coyotes, knowing a complete defensive approach is needed to complement the St. Louis Blues' strong goaltending. Last Friday, the Blues defenseman stood near his locker at the Scottrade Center after Brian Elliott had surrendered foul goals, a performance that added to St. Louis' late-season slide. Defense is a group effort, Pietrangelo said after the Blues' fourth loss in as many games. It's a grind, and Elliott and Jaroslav Halak have made St. Louis one of the NHL's best with their play near the net all season. But Pietrangelo and others know more is necessary to help the William Jennings Trophy winners in the postseason. For the Blues to advance deep in the NHL playoffs they begin a best-of-seven Western Conference quarterfinals series against the San Jose Sharks on Thursday at the Scottrade Center they must improve their defensive intensity. Yes, Elliott and Halak are elite their 165 combined goals allowed were the fewest in the league. Yes, the Blues will have a favorable chance to win each night in the postseason with them. But the Blues know Elliott and Halak are just one piece of a larger strategy when defending the puck. The talented netminders can't carry the Blues alone. "I think they've been good lately," Pietrangelo said, the night before the Blues closed the regular season with a 3-2 road victory over the Dallas Stars. "We haven't been as good in front of them as we need to be. We've got to play for them more. They're doing all they can back there. We've got to play better in front of them. We know what we've got to do. We've got to go out there and execute it and find a way to get back to our game." If the Blues execute, their chance of success is high, and goaltending is the reason why. The question of whether Elliott or Halak will be named St. Louis' postseason starter has been a hot debate in recent weeks. No matter coach Ken Hitchcock's choice, though, the Blues' hopes of winning their first playoffs series since 2002 depends on sound defense to help the tandem. Both have proven to be some of the league's most efficient goalies. Elliott finished 23-10-4 with nine shutouts and a save percentage of .940 the best in the NHL. Halak was 26-12-7 with six shutouts and a save percentage of .926 good for seventh. Elliott was especially dangerous late in the season. His franchise-best shutout streak lasted 241:33, before Detroit Red Wings winger Johan Franzen scored twice late in a 3-2 shootout victory at the Scottrade Center last Wednesday. "We kind of thrive off that competition," Elliott said of his relationship with Halak. "Whoever is in there, we're cheering for the other one. We want that win for the guys. We're not trying to be perfect in there just trying to do our job and give the guys a chance to win." Elliott and Halak have given the Blues plenty of chances to win. There are many reasons for St. Louis' resurgence this season: Hitchcock, a Stanley Cup winner with the Stars in 1999, brought credibility behind the bench after he replaced Davis Payne last November; center David Backes has grown as a captain while leading his team with 24 goals; winger T.J. Oshie has elevated his skill after signing a one-year contract extension worth 2.35 million last June. But the Blues would not have earned the Western Conference's No. 2 seed and competed for the Presidents' Trophy without Elliott and Halak. Elliott led the NHL with a 1.56 goals-against average, and Halak was fourth in the category with an average of 1.97. They were both respected and feared. Yet St. Louis' stumble in the final week of the regular season is cause for concern. St. Louis went 1-4 during the stretch that included shootout defeats to the Chicago Blackhawks and Red Wings. Players saw discipline on defense decline when the Blues lost a chance to beat the Vancouver Canucks for the Western Conference's top overall slot. They know Elliott and Halak are best when traffic near the net is limited. As a result, team leadership wants to see opponents given less room to work. "They're getting way too good of chances against those guys," Backes said after the loss to Phoenix. "They've been good when they can see the puck, and they don't have tons of traffic or second chances. Guys are getting free in front, winning one-on-one battles and burying it. That's not the way we've been successful. We've won those one-on-ones, we've stripped pucks, we've created offense and not spent a ton of time on our end." Recent history suggests Backes could see improvement against San Jose. The Blues outscored the Sharks 11-3 in sweeping the four-game series between the teams in the regular season. Elliott and Halak each received two starts against their quarterfinals foe and both earned a shutout. Such strong goalie production is a large reason why St. Louis became one of the Western Conference's elite squads this season. Elliott or Halak? Either way, the choice is strong. But what St. Louis does around them in the coming weeks will be most important of all.
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