"I see Halak is doing his traditional pre-playoff injury thing."
Those were the half-taunting words of some Blues fan friends of mine, who already forgot the sweep-of-the-Predators gift that Halak gave their first-place-by-one-point-over-Nashville team during the last month.
At the root of every taunt is some level of truth. And the truth is, the St. Louis Blues traded Halak last season not because he wasn't a good goalie, and not because he hadn't had impressive playoff success, but because his contract was expiring and he'd never been healthy enough to display that playoff success with them.
They'd soon face a choice between their two good UFA-bound goalies (Brian Elliott was the other), they had already been burned by Halak's injuries in multiple postseasons, and Ryan Miller's resume (and health track record) was apparently too much to resist. (Because this is the Blues, there was probably a bit of franchise history angst at play too.)
It's cruel to base decisions on such select samples, but a confluence of factors -- including an heir apparent in the AHL whose contract became one-way this season -- meant the Blues would part with one of their goalies over the summer anyway.
Of Luck and Health
In 2010-11, the Blues missed the playoffs but Halak was strong in 57 games during his first season as a Blue. (His first major injury with the Blues happened that season, a tough-luck hand injury believed to be a broken bone.)
In 2011-12, Halak steered a rising team to the playoffs that began with a first-round sweep of the San Jose Sharks. However, he was knocked from the playoffs in Game 2 of that series after being barreled over by his defenseman, Barret Jackman, injuring his groin.
In the lockout-shortened 2012-13, he never sniffed the playoff crease as the Blues lost in six games to the defending Cup champion Los Angeles Kings. Halak had injured his groin in an April 1 game in Minnesota, and though he was back and dressed for the playoffs, that was his last game of the season. In the playoffs, the Blues went with Elliott -- a decision that led to a mini-feud with coach Ken Hitchcock.
The injuries, mainly groin/abdominal, were frustrating enough that Halak went into that summer (2013) with a change in his training: Staying in St. Louis instead of returning to Slovakia for the summer, Halak took on a new regimen to strengthen his core.
Sure enough, 2013-14 was a healthy one, with Halak playing 52 games for two different teams. Of course, that last fact means the Blues traded him anyway. The Washington Capitals, his third and final team that season, didn't make the playoffs. But if they had, he was healthy and ready to go at season's end.
Gearing Up for a Postseason Run
Which brings us to spring 2015. The Islanders are gearing up for a return to the playoffs, except this time they have a better goalie and bigger ambitions than the modest expectations that accompanied them in 2013. They'll want to ride that goalie the way Halak carried the Canadiens through three rounds when he made his name in the NHL in 2009-10.
But they'll want to make sure he's both in form and in good health. He was left behind in New York last week when the Isles traveled to Chicago, the (undisclosed) injury bulletin that elicited my friends' taunts. Depending on your lens, that was a move that could raise red flags or could be a sign that the Isles, with only one game in a six-day span, were being conservative and proactive in getting him some rest before what they hope is a long playoff run.
In favor of the latter point, Halak was back on the ice when the Isles returned from that one-off trip, and he promptly didn't give up a goal in his next five periods, until Minnesota's equalizer in the third period Tuesday night.
The other time this season when the health alarm was raised was when the Isles used the Christmas break as part of the retroactive window to put Halak on IR Dec. 27. On the one hand, that "lower body" issue came after Halak was surprisingly used in back-to-back starts Dec. 19-20. On the other hand, the holiday break meant he was effectively only on IR for two days, when the Isles got Kevin Poulin a spot start on recall.
The Isles are near the end of a long regular season where Halak has broken the Isles franchise record for goalie wins in 52 appearances thus far, the second-highest games-played total of his NHL career. He has carried a strong workload, but a mostly carefully managed one. Before the season, an appearance total around 60 games was a reasonable -- ideal, even -- expectation.
Goaltending is the most physically demanding of positions, and the number of body areas that a skater can "play through" but which a goalie should not are many. So any team has to guard against overuse, especially if a goalie has wear-and-tear injuries in his past.
With eight games left to go and home-ice on the line, the Isles probably won't be in a position to rest Halak outside of their two remaining weekend back-to-backs (the second of which closes the season, when the playoff seeds might already be decided). But having traded Chad Johnson for Michal Neuvirth at the trade deadline, they have a backup they believe in, and the care they've taken with Halak has him looking as ready as one can be with the playoffs now just three weeks away.