Martin Havlat has never had this much fun playing hockey.
"What a game. What a series. This whole season's been a blast," Havlat, 28, said after the Blackhawks eliminated the Vancouver Canucks with a 7-5 win in Game 6 Monday night in the Western Conference Semifinals. "For me, it's always seemed to be one step forward and two steps back with all of the injuries I've had. But this year, I've only missed one game and it's amazing how everything comes so automatically when you're either playing or practicing every day without pain.
"When I spent two months in Montreal in the offseason working out, I felt like I might finally have an injury-free season."
For the multi-talented right winger and the Blackhawks, it couldn't have come at a better time. A contract year for Havlat has now coincided with Chicago's first trip to the playoffs since 2002 and its first visit to the conference finals since 1995.
There were times over the past two seasons when Havlat seemed stuck in neutral. He was usually out with a groin, high-ankle sprain or, more often than not, a shoulder injury, absences that allowed him to play in just 81 games combined during the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons.
Now, Havlat is more than shouldering his share of the load.
After scoring career-highs assists (48) and points (77) in the regular season, Havlat is atop the Blackhawks' points list with five goals and eight assists in 12 games in the playoffs -- one point more than Patrick Kane
Havlat started the playoffs with a bang -- two goals in Game 1 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against Calgary, including the game-winner 12 seconds into overtime. Then, in the series against Vancouver, he broke up a brilliant 1-0 shutout attempt by Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo in Game 4 -- scoring with just 2:44 left and then helping to set up Andrew Ladd for the winner 2:52 into overtime for a 2-1 triumph.
"I thought that was the turning point of the playoffs," coach Joel Quenneville said. "Havvy's been focused, hungry and really dangerous for us."
Havlat has shown how dangerous and dynamic he is, which is what GM Dale Tallon saw when he swung a three-team deal in July of 2006 -- San Jose traded defenseman Tom Preissing and center Josh Hennessy to Chicago for left winger Mark Bell and then the Blackhawks shipped Preissing, Hennessy, defenseman Michal Barinka and a second-round draft choice in 2007 to Ottawa for Havlat and veteran forward Bryan Smolinski. Clearly, Havlat was the main piece of that maneuver -- and Tallon showed everyone how much he valued him by signing him to a three-year, $18 million contract.
"It seems like yesterday that I saw Marty playing with a great deal of passion, speed and talent in a tournament in Germany in 1999, his draft year," Tallon remembered.
When you think about it, it's been a long time since Havlat had two goals and two assists in an 8-6 victory in his first game with Chicago -- becoming the first player to score multiple goals and multiple assists in his Hawks' debut. And if you remember, Havlat had seven goals, six assists and was a plus-8 in his first seven games before the injury bug hit him. How much did the Hawks miss him? The team averaged 3.9 goals per game with him in the lineup and just 1.8 without him.
"When you consider all the injury problems he's had, Marty's been very good in spurts," said Canucks center Ryan Johnson, who saw plenty of Havlat when he played in St. Louis. "I've always felt he was very explosive. He's the kind of player who can change the course of a game in an instant. But his biggest asset is his speed and how he can find an opening and either make a play or create a great scoring chance for himself … doing all of that at a high speed. Not many players can do that."
Havlat has been at his best this season since being moved to the so-called third line with Dave Bolland
and Ladd that has proven to be every bit as dangerous as the top two lines. Giving Havlat a checking/scoring assignment is just the kind of responsibility he was looking for.
Said Bolland, "He's got sick skills, with his vision and what he can do with the puck. He's brought that extra level of skill to our line. Honestly, we don't care that people call us the third line or whatever. With Havvy's skill and speed, he's helped us be dominant."
I asked Havlat about being on a contract push. He begged off at first, then said simply, "I'd rather not answer that question right now. I'm taking everything game by game. I've missed so much hockey here the last few years that I just want to play and enjoy it."
But Tallon and Havlat's agent were working on a new contract before the playoffs.
"He wants to stay, and we want him to," Tallon said.
They say the biggest stars in sports have an elevated intelligence, an awareness of history and a passion to play at a level over and above everyone else. That factor could not be more evident when Havlat, who was well aware of the importance of Bobby Hull's No. 9 hanging from the rafters of the United Center, said he wouldn't even think of asking to continue to wear the No. 9 he had donned in Ottawa.
Thousands of miles could separate a young Marty Havlat in the Czech Republic, but he made it a point to watch and read about the greatest players on TV. It was easy for Havlat to watch, follow and idolize superstar countryman Jaromir Jagr. But he also read two of Wayne Gretzky's books and followed all of The Great One's how-to tips as a player.
As a rookie with the Senators in 2001, Havlat went to an auction and bid a whopping $1,400 to acquire an autographed Gretzky sweater. The same year, he also acquired a Bobby Orr autographed book and poster.
It's clear that this 6-2, 217-pound winger is more than just a hockey player and fan of the game.
Havlat was born to play hockey and he got a better-than-average opportunity to hone his skills with the help of his father, Slava, who was a defenseman in various Czech leagues and served as his coach until his early teens. Still, Havlat never really thought about being good enough to play in the NHL until he made the Czech 16-and-under team.
"I was probably the skinniest kid on the team," he said, laughing. "No muscle, but I could skate and shoot the puck."
Hey, even Tallon passed on Havlat in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft -- Chicago taking defenseman Steve McCarthy with the 23rd pick, while Havlat went three slots later.
"His skills were that of a man already, but he was just a boy physically," recalled Blues assistant GM Jarmo Kekalainen, who was chief scout in Ottawa at the time and called out Havlat's name. "He was listed at 178 pounds all season and scouts saw the skill, but shook their heads because he was so skinny. But one of our scouts had gone to see him training afterward and he told us that Marty had been working hard in the weight room and already looked more filled out.
"We always believed, when his body catches up to his skill, we might really have a special player."
And that's exactly what has happened.
Author: Larry Wigge | NHL.com Columnist