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Halak looks to make St. Louis the final stop

by Larry Wigge
Jaroslav Halak's Montreal Canadiens teammates were busy having a little bit of fun at the goaltender's expense prior to Game 5 of last spring's first-round series against the Washington Capitals.

Right wing Michael Cammalleri and defenseman Andrei Markov were running a drill where the defenseman takes a point drive and the forward drives for the rebound. Cammalleri decided he would change signals -- getting the rebound and passing to another player on the back side of the net.

Easy goal, right?

Now most goalies take pride in stopping every shot, be it in a game or in practice. But this time, Halak was mad. So he channeled that anger into excellence and stopped the joking by beating the backside shot every time from then on.

"In a game, a goaltender doesn't have the time to get over for the rebound," Cammalleri said. "It was unfair of us, but then Halak has the last laugh. If you do that to some goalies, they'll go right out of their net, into the locker room and they won't talk to you for two days."

But Halak made his point, just as he did during the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs, where he became a breakout star. First, Halak knocked off Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals with a .939 save percentage. Next came Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Against them, Halak's save percentage was .927.

And while the Canadiens came up short against the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference Finals, Halak still posted the top save percentage (.923) of any goalie in the 2010 playoffs.

So how did Halak end up being a St. Louis Blue for the 2010-11 season?

The Canadiens had to make a choice. Both Halak and Carey Price were unrestricted free agents and Montreal opted to keep Price, 23, over the instant hero, sending Halak, 25, to the Blues for center Lars Eller and right wing Ian Schultz.

St. Louis GM Doug Armstrong had made it known he would take either goalie, calling his Montreal counterpart, Pierre Gauthier, after the first round of the playoffs. Armstrong called again after Round 2, letting Gauthier know he was serious about making a move prior to the July 1 free-agent period.

"Back in June we were looking to add one more piece to the team," Armstrong said. "Someone who had the pedigree -- not just a flash in the pan -- someone who made a mark, in the playoffs, no less. Adding one more 20-something, who could fit into our mixture of players. And grow.

"He was that prime piece," Armstrong said of Halak. "This wasn't a knee-jerk trade based on three weeks. Jaro's played well at every level. And when he finally got the chance in that Montreal goal, he wouldn't give it up. He's a tough competitor. He's just a winner."

"Growing up it was always my dream to pHe was that prime piece. This wasn't a knee-jerk trade based on three weeks. Jaro's played well at every level. And when he finally got the chance in that Montreal goal, he wouldn't give it up. He's a tough competitor. He's just a winner."
-- Doug Armstrong on Jaroslav Halak

Blues President John Davidson, himself a former goalie who knows what inner demons affect netminders, just smiled as his staff showed him some of Halak's playoff highlights.

"Hockey is a long road trip," Davidson said. "He played juniors in Slovakia, but he wanted to get a chance to play here, so he played in Lewiston, Maine, went on to Hamilton and Long Beach and back to Hamilton before getting a chance in Montreal.

"It's got to be something very special -- to play in Montreal where it's like a religion -- and get on a roll in the playoffs. His road trip also includes playing for Slovakia in the Olympics. This is a 25-year-old that knows each stop you take on the road and takes each game as a journey."

For his efforts, the Blues rewarded Halak with a four-year, $15 contract.

"I look at it as something special," Halak said of his playoff achievements. "You can't take those games away from me. I came into last season with a goal of playing 34 games with Montreal. Now, the St. Louis Blues have given me the opportunity to be their No. 1 goaltender."

Halak gave credit to his granddad for something he learned earlier in his career.

"When I was younger, when I had a bad game, I didn't talk to my parents. I was mad at myself," Halak said, a little sheepishly. "My granddad said, 'If you have a bad game, just think about it until midnight. After that, it's a new day and a new game.' He was right."

Young Halak knew almost from Day 1 that he was going to be a netminder. The middle son of Jaroslav and Jarmila Halak's three boys, he loved the equipment and the mask. He lived to stop the ball on the street and the puck on the rink. Patrick Roy was his hero, no surprise there. But former St. Louis goaltender Curtis Joseph was another of his favorites because of his acrobatic style.

Still, there was culture shock when it came to North America. He didn't know the language when he came over to play in Lewiston of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He learned English by watching the popular cartoon "Family Guy" on television as well as professional wrestling. He then made his way through the pro ranks with stops in Long Beach and Hamilton before sharing the goal with Price in Montreal.

Halak always has been a late-blooming afterthought in the goaltending business. In 2003, he was just beginning to become known when he backstopped Slovakia to the silver medal in the Under-18 World Championships. In the semifinals, the Slovaks knocked off Russia in a shootout, 2-1, with Halak denying Alexander Ovechkin's shootout attempt.

"I remember that as being a big step for me," Halak said. "I thought maybe one day I'll get a chance to play in the NHL."

The following summer, Halak took the next leap, being drafted by the Canadiens. He didn't hear his name, though, until 270 others had been called. He was the 25th goalie out of 27.

"I watched the first six rounds," Halak said. "When I didn't see my name, I stopped watching. Then my agent called me and said I got drafted by the Montreal Canadiens. I was kind of disappointed I got drafted in the ninth round, but I still had a chance."

The journey has continued to St. Louis, where Halak had his mask decorated with a Blues flavor. The front shows his number, 41. On the sides are Jacques Plante, Mike Liut and Grant Fuhr, former St. Louis goaltenders.

"Everyone on the mask was a great goalie and a Hall of Famer," Halak said. "Every one was a great goalie, and that's why I put them on the mask."

If Halak has even half as much success as those three, look out for the St. Louis Blues.

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