Washington Capitals goalie Jaroslav Halak paused for a moment and began to choose his words carefully. He did not want to provide his former team with any bulletin board material, so the question of whether he had asked Coach Adam Oates to start Tuesday night’s game at St. Louis went unanswered.
But Halak couldn’t hide the trade that sent him from the Blues to last-place Buffalo on Feb. 28 for Ryan Miller — six days later, the Sabres then traded Halak again to Washington — has not yet been forgotten. He admitted Monday to having “mixed emotions” about the first encounter with his former teammates.
“It’s still fresh. I play there for four years. I know these guys,” Halak said. “We’ll see whether I play or not, but obviously I’m looking forward to go back there.”
Oates would not commit to a starting goalie after Monday’s practice. Over the weekend, Halak and fellow netminder Braden Holtby each got the nod for one game when Washington played back-to-back contests against the New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders.
Holtby, making just his fourth appearance since March 6, stopped 35 shots and allowed three goals when the Capitals bested the Islanders Saturday. Halak, meanwhile, stopped 29 of the 31 shots he faced in a 2-1 defeat to the Devils, the fifth straight game in which he hasn’t gotten a win when he started between the pipes.
If he were to get the nod Tuesday, Halak would be able to call on some previous experience playing against a former team. Halak was traded from Montreal to St. Louis before the 2010-11 season and he was quick to point out, “we beat them” the first time the two teams faced one another. But that revenge game happened in March, almost nine months after the trade.
“This is a little different,” Halak said. “Obviously, I wasn’t happy when I got traded. You’re trying to build something with a team, trying to play well for them and then you get traded.”
In 40 games with St. Louis this season, Halak racked up a 2.23 goals against average and a .917 percentage. During 11 starts with Washington, his save percentage has gone up (.923), but his goals against average (2.53) has suffered facing a barrage of shots playing behind the Capitals’ revolving door of defensemen.
When Washington takes on St. Louis Tuesday, it will be perilously close to being eliminated from the playoff race. If the Capitals lose to the Blues in regulation, Detroit gets at least one point from its game against Buffalo and Columbus beats Phoenix in any fashion, the Capitals would miss the postseason for the first time since the 2006-07 campaign.
It just so happens Washington will be running into the Western Conference’s top team, and the numbers will not be in the Capitals’ favor. Though the Blues are coming off convincing losses to Colorado (4-0) and Chicago (4-2), they have not suffered three straight defeats this season.
Washington did score a 4-1 victory in its first meeting with St. Louis this season at Verizon Center back on Nov. 17. Holtby stopped 46 of 47 shots that night.
“It’s always about how you respond and they’ve always responded the right way,” Halak said of the Blues. “They’ve lost two in a row right now and I’m sure they’re not happy about it. Coaching staff, players, management … everybody on that team has that winning attitude.”