goaltender Jaroslav Halak
is heating up at the right time.
As the 24-year-old native of Bratislava, Slovakia continues to count the days before he joins his countrymen in Vancouver at his first Winter Olympics, Halak realizes a good showing down the stretch drive to Vancouver will go a long way to boosting his confidence.
Not to mention earn him the starting role for the Slovaks, who finished 13th in the 2002 Winter Games and fifth in '06.
"I met the Slovakian coach (Jan Filc) and general manager Peter Bondra
when we were in Washington and they said, 'We're counting on you and hopefully you will get some starts before the Olympics to get your timing down,' " Halak told NHL.com.
Fact is, Halak has done more than get his timing down -- he's playing some of his best hockey for Montreal. He notched his first career victory over the Devils on Jan. 22 and third shutout of the season against the Rangers the following day. Halak no longer is considered merely the backup to Carey Price
. Coach Jacques Martin is giving each goalie equal time in an attempt to uncover a bona fide starter.
Right now, Halak might have an edge; yet, he'd be the first to say that it's all about wins and not necessarily who's in goal. But earning the No. 1 spot for his country in the 2010 Olympics surely would be the highlight of his career.
"It's going to be my first time there so it's a big honor to play on the national team. It's going to be a new experience for me and some of the other guys, too." -- Jaroslav Halak
"It's going to be my first time there so it's a big honor to play on the national team," he said. "It's going to be a new experience for me and some of the other guys, too."
While Halak doesn't have any Olympic experience, he has played in international competition several times. In 32 games at the World Junior Championships and World Championships, Halak has a 2.46 goals-against average. In six games in the World Championships, he is 2-3-0 with a 2.85 GAA and .885 save percentage.
Halak will be joined in goal on the Slovakia roster by Colorado's Peter Budaj
and Rastislav Stana
, who plays for Severstal Cherepovets in the KHL. Also starring for Team Slovakia will be 2009 Norris Trophy-winner Zdeno Chara
and forwards Marian Hossa
and Marian Gaborik
"We've got some skilled guys up front and we've got some really good defensemen, but it all comes down to how we play on the ice," Halak said. "In a short tournament, it all depends on which team can come together quicker as a team and not as individuals. And its all about luck, too -- you win a few games and get on a roll."
Kind of like the roll Halak has been on with the Canadiens this season.
The fourth-season goalie established a personal-high with 40 saves in a 3-0 shutout of the Islanders on Dec. 19, and then set two personal highs with 47 saves while facing 50 shots in a 4-3 overtime victory in Atlanta two days later.
All the stats are nice, but Halak just has his mind set on playing consistently enough to keep his team within striking distance. It's a mentality he's had ever since he was a teenager learning the game back home, when he also enjoyed playing soccer.
"When I was younger I used to play soccer and it wasn't like I was playing for any team, either; I just played outside with my friends and had a good time," he said. "Obviously, I was also playing hockey -- a lot of hockey.
"Most of the guys back then, even me, dreamed of becoming an NHL player. It was my dream because I'd watch the highlights from NHL all the time and was like, 'Oh man, these guys can stop the puck.' "
One player who really caught Halak's eye was the recently retired Curtis Joseph
. Joseph, who was a member of Canada's gold-medal winning team at the 2002 Games, is the winningest netminder in NHL history never to win the Stanley Cup.
"(Joseph) didn't have a big size (5-foot-11), but he was very fast," Halak said. "He could really move quick from side to side and that's kind of the same with me. I'm not a big guy, but I know I have to move fast."
Halak, like his childhood hero, also happens to be 5-11. In addition to helping the Canadiens remain in playoff contention -- the club entered Wednesday's games ninth in the Eastern Conference -- he's looking forward to all the pomp and circumstance of the Winter Games in February.
"I'm really just going to enjoy it on my own," he said. "I want to discover everything on my own. I want to get that feel for what it's like to be there because I've read so much about it -- it sounds great. To be there with the rest of the star athletes from all over the world is going to be something, that's for sure."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com