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Big games becoming old hat for Halak

by Corey Masisak /
PITTSBURGH -- Not to be lost in the aftermath of a stunning offensive explosion for the Montreal Canadians was the man who got them to this point in the first place.

While the Canadiens did blow this Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Pittsburgh Penguins open with a four-goal outburst, they still needed goaltender Jaroslav Halak to help fend off a furious comeback by the defending Stanley Cup champions.

"Obviously you can't forget about Jaro and how special he's been playing right now," defenseman Josh Gorges said. "I mean, he's been unreal. There's no other words to explain it."

Added Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang: "Oh, he saved the game again. There's no doubt about it. I don't know how many saves he made but we had an open net and he just battled and he was great."

Halak made 37 saves, and while he didn't get to pad his remarkable record this season when facing 40 or more shots, the Canadiens were plenty happy with his effort. He is now tied for the League lead with a .933 save percentage, and Halak has helped backstop the first No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference to reach the third round in the current playoff format.

"It's nice playing in front of him. He's so strong, you just try to take away the back-door, easy goals and let him handle everything else," defenseman Hal Gill said. "I think as a team, we have committed to that. Block shots when you can, but for the most part try and let him see it. He's been great that way. Obviously we are not perfect and he has bailed us out every time we weren't."

One of the two shots that beat him was a bit of a fluke -- the puck should have kicked into the corner but hit an official and landed on Chris Kunitz's stick. The other was a deflection with heavy traffic in front.

Save for a goal by Letang in Game 6 on a soft wrist shot, and part of Halak's excellence is he's made every save he's supposed to make -- and then tossed in some extraordinary ones as well.

"At this point is it a great game or is it just a good game? I guess I've come to expect it from him," goal-scoring hero Michael Cammalleri said. "We need him to be that way and everybody wants to sing his praises, but I'm going to say that we expect it from him and we're going to need him to keep doing it."

Several of his best saves came after the Penguins had cut a 4-0 lead in half. Pittsburgh had a 4-on-3 power play for 60 seconds to start the third, and the Penguins kept the pressure on Montreal for the first half of a final period in which the Canadiens were outshot 18-3.

Halak made a huge save on Sidney Crosby during the 4-on-3 and then a key leg stop on Evgeni Malkin with the Penguins enjoying a 5-on-4 advantage. The Penguins pressed for a third goal to sustain their rally, but Halak took it away with his excellent work.

"That's what I am there for," Halak said. "I need to make some saves. I need to make some stops, something more than I should. I was there and guys were there for me, too. We scored more goals than they did."

Helping an underdog deeper into a tournament than expected is nothing new for Halak. He was one of the main reasons Slovakia was the biggest surprise at the Winter Olympics, reaching the semifinals with upset victories against Russia and Sweden along the way.

Now he's got the Canadiens, the 19th-best team in the League during the regular season, into the NHL's version of the semifinals.

"It is big thing to beat Pittsburgh. First round Washington and now Pittsburgh -- who would have expect that?" Halak said. "Nobody gave us a chance and here we are, going to the conference final, and everybody should enjoy it."

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