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Jaroslav Halak cornerstone of Team Europe

Goalie no stranger to international success heading into World Cup final

by Shawn P. Roarke sroarke_nhl / NHL.com Director of Editorial

This is not the first time that Goaltender Jaroslav Halak has helped carry a team to heights it never expected in an international tournament.

For the past four games, Halak has been the primary reason Team Europe, perhaps the most unfancied team among the eight at the World Cup of Hockey 2016, is still standing and preparing for a best-of-3 final series against tournament favorite Team Canada

Game 1 is Tuesday at Air Canada Centre (8 p.m. ET; ESPN, CBC, TVA Sports).

"He's definitely one of the cornerstones of our success," Team Europe general manager Miroslav Satan said Monday. "The way we are succeeding in this tournament, he has a lot to do with that."

Team Europe (3-1-0) upset Team Sweden in the semifinal Sunday, winning 3-2 in overtime. Halak, 31, made 37 saves and has stopped 142 of 150 shots in the tournament. His .947 save percentage is .001 less than Team Canada's Carey Price, who has faced 53 fewer shots and played one less game.

Satan has seen this story play out before.

He teamed with Halak to help Slovakia go on an unexpected run in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. There, Halak was again a cornerstone as Slovakia reached the semifinals for the first time. In the bronze-medal game, Finland denied the Slovaks a medal.

Halak played in seven games in that tournament and stopped 173 of 190 shots, including 36 saves in a 2-1 upset of Russia in preliminary play. In the quarterfinals, he allowed two goals as Slovakia defeated Sweden. In the semis, he gave Canada all it could handle before losing 3-2.

Halak was great then. He might be better today.

"I think he is getting better with age," Satan said. "This tournament is the best I have seen him."

Tweet from @NYIslanders: Jaroslav Halak and @TeamEUR_WCH will meet @91Tavares and #TeamCanada in the #WCH2016 final! Congrats Jaro! #Isles pic.twitter.com/CFB2MByIGt

Halak has a history of playing well for stretches in the NHL and in international play. Team Canada forward John Tavares knows it. He has seen Halak run extremely hot on more than one occasion since Halak joined the New York Islanders prior to the 2014-15 season.

He is seeing it again now. This time, as an opponent, he is the one that has to figure out a weakness to exploit.

"Jaro has played extremely well in this tournament, you have to have good goaltending to get to this point," Tavares said Monday after Team Canada practice. "He just seems he's very in control of his crease, his net, his ability to recover on pucks.

"We know he's very talented. He's had some big moments, some very good runs in the playoffs, and he's healthy coming off of last year, so I think he feels really good physically. He's got some confidence through the tournament, so we know we're going to have to be hard on him and put a lot of pucks on net and create second and third opportunities."

Team Europe forward Frans Nielsen also has played with Halak the past two seasons with the Islanders. He is glad they are on the same side in this tournament.

"He's been our MVP so far and I'm not surprised," said Nielsen, who signed as a free agent with the Detroit Red Wings this summer. "The one thing with him is he always gives you a chance to win. He has those saves during a game too that can change the momentum and instead of being down by two, you're only down by one and then you know he keeps you in the game."

Halak was unavailable to the Islanders during the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season. He missed the final 17 regular-season games and all of the playoffs with a groin injury. He was replaced by Thomas Greiss, who, ironically, is the No. 2 for Team Europe.

At the start of Team Europe camp three weeks ago, there was no certainty that Halak would be the No. 1. He hadn't played in close to six months.

Video: PIT@NYI: Halak stones Kessel's point-blank shot

Denmark's Frederik Andersen had the inside track until he was injured during Olympic qualifying, right before the start of World Cup training camp. Greiss, because of his strong play in the playoffs as Halak's replacement and for Germany during the 2016 IIHF World Championship, was also considered heavily for the job.

But, in the end, Halak won it with a strong camp and the best performance in the pretournament stage.

"I feel good out there so far," Halak said Sunday after defeating Team Sweden. "Obviously, playing Canada in the final, they are a great team, no weakness in their lineup. We'll just try to match it."

Halak knows he is the best chance for Team Europe to pull off the upset. Since reporting to Team Europe, he has thought extensively about his team shocking the world of hockey.

"We just had to believe," he said. "I always say, you are going to have some dreams that some people might say are not realistic. We created a story right now and we just need to keep going."

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