The St. Louis Blues fulfilled high expectations through their first seven games of the season, but have been on a downward spiral since and it's not difficult to see why.
The Blues hope Jaroslav Halak's return can help them end a four-game losing streak Monday night when they host the Los Angeles Kings in the teams' first meeting since last season's Western Conference semifinals.
Halak was the one of the key pieces in St. Louis' impressive start, going 3-0-0 with a 2.10 goals-against average and two shutouts before suffering a groin strain in a 5-3 loss at Detroit on Feb. 1. That ended the Blues' four-game win streak and started the current skid, with Brian Elliott struggling to match Halak in net.
Elliott allowed five goals on 23 shots in a 6-5 shootout loss to Anaheim on Saturday, then four more on six shots in the tiebreaker. He is 0-3-1 with a 4.87 GAA in four appearances this month after leading the NHL with a 1.56 mark last season.
Coach Ken Hitchcock said Saturday that if Halak wasn't ready in time to face the Kings, he planned to give Jake Allen his first career start. Allen was assigned to Peoria, Ill., of the AHL on Sunday.
"He's not playing very good," Hitchcock told the team's official website about Elliott. "He'd be the first to tell you too. He's got to play better. A goalie is no different than a forward or a defenseman, they come in and out of the lineup based on performance and he's no different."
Chris Stewart and Alexander Steen each had a goal and two assists in Saturday's loss as St. Louis (6-4-1) broke out after totaling two goals in its previous two games. The Blues converted both of their power-play chances and are 8 for 20 with the man advantage in their last five contests.
"We competed for 65 minutes at a very high level," Hitchcock said. "We played a heck of a hockey game."
Hitchcock's team will look to exact a small measure of revenge after the Kings outscored the Blues 15-6 en route to a sweep in last season's conference semifinals. St. Louis did win three of four regular-season meetings, allowing only three goals.
Halak is 6-2-0 with a 1.70 GAA and two shutouts lifetime against Los Angeles, but sat out the playoff matchup with a lower-body injury.
This will be final stop on a five-game trip for the Kings (3-5-2), who are tied for last in the conference and have lost four of five.
Sunday's 3-2 defeat at Detroit may have been their most disheartening of the season. After Alec Martinez tied it 2-all with 53 seconds left in regulation, Red Wings defenseman Jonathan Ericsson scored on a slap shot with five seconds remaining.
Captain Dustin Brown remained positive after the Kings registered 47 shots - their most since they had 55 on April 10, 2010.
"Probably our best 60 minutes in a long time," Brown said. "Got to forget about the last 10 seconds."
Jonathan Quick went 4-0 with a 1.50 GAA in the playoff sweep of the Blues but is 3-8-1 lifetime against them in the regular season. Backup Jonathan Bernier made his only appearance this season in relief on Feb. 2.
Averaging 2.10 goals, the Kings are desperate for offense, and Anze Kopitar may be ready to provide some. He scored for the second time in three games Sunday and drew high praise from coach Darryl Sutter.
"I think it was Kopie's best game of the year," Sutter said. "He had some bounce in his game."
Kopitar and Brown both had two goals and four assists in the sweep of St. Louis.
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