Few people gave the Montreal Canadiens much of a chance heading into their first round matchup with the Washington Capitals. And really, with the Capitals owning the National Hockey League’s best record during the regular season, and Montreal having to wait until the final day just to qualify for the postseason dance, who can blame them?
But games aren’t played on paper – they are played on the ice. By now, unless you have spent the past three days in a cave, everyone is aware Montreal pulled off a historic comeback for the ages, storming back from a 3-1 series deficit to steal the final three contests, including two at Verizon Center in Washington, to upset the Presidents’ Trophy winners in seven games.
Montreal’s fortunes turned for the better against the Capitals when Canadiens head coach Jacques Martin made the decision to turn to goaltender Jaroslav Halak prior to Game 5. Halak had started the series between the pipes for the Habs, but he was pulled from the crease after surrendering three goals on 13 shots in Game 3.
But when Halak’s replacement, Carey Price, also struggled to prevent Washington’s sharpshooters from tickling the twine, Martin went back to Halak – a move that few will argue saved the Canadiens’ season.
From that moment forward, Halak was the equivalent of a brick wall for Montreal, stopping 131 of the 134 shots Washington threw his way the final two games, including 53 stops in Game 6 and 41 more in the series-finale as the Capitals tossed everything but the kitchen sink his way.
“Amazing performance,” said former Penguin Dominic Moore, who scored the game-winning goal in Game 7. “He was so steady in there, so calm looking amidst a storm of shots. That’s the kind of thing that is huge this time of year, to have a goalie that’s confident. He doesn’t get too high. He doesn’t get too low. I think that’s something when a goalie is good under pressure. He’s maintaining that even keel. You can’t read too much into how he looks.”
Halak has been more than huge thus far – he probably deserves to have his name mentioned right there next to Sidney Crosby
as the top-two performers from the first round. There were times, especially in Game 6 at Bell Centre, where you needed to blink a time or two after watching Halak snarl pucks out of the air because his play was reminiscent of another Canadiens goaltender who took the postseason by storm at a young age in 1986 – Hall of Famer Patrick Roy.
Halak’s strong performance in round one might be surprising to many fans, but it wasn’t to the Penguins. Quietly, Halak finished the regular season as one of the top goaltenders in the league, ranking fourth in save percentage (.924), seventh in shutouts (5) and ninth in goals-against average (2.40) after taking over the starting reigns from Price in late-December.
“He was playing well for them during the season so I don’t know if it is a groove right now,” Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar said. “He has been playing all the time since the middle of the season so it is not a surprise to me.”
Halak was also the key figure behind Team Slovakia’s fourth-place finish at the Vancouver Olympics, going 3-3 with a 2.41 goals-against average and .911 save percentage. Gonchar came away impressed with the 24-year-old netminder following a 36-save effort when the Slovaks upset Gonchar’s Russian team, 2-1, in the preliminary round.
What has stood out the most to both the Penguins and Canadiens about the super-human effort Halak has given Montreal over the past week is how calm and composed the 2003 9th-round draft pick has stayed in the eye of the storm that is playing goaltender in Montreal during the postseason.
“I think the one thing you saw from him in the games was that he was under control,” Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma said. “He wasn’t moving a lot. He was in good position. It seemed to force Washingotn to shoot the puck wide a lot. They had great opportunities. He made some amazing saves. They were blocking shots but the way they were playing defense and the way he was playing goal forced them to shoot the puck wide a lot.”
“It seems like he is a guy who is playing really well right now,” Gonchar said. “He is always in the right position. It seems like he is calm.”
“He’s in a good head space,” Montreal sniper Mike Cammalleri said. “We got him riled this morning at practice. It’s always a good thing when he’s upset. I look forward to him playing well.”
As good as Halak is playing right now, and the evidence suggests there isn’t a netminder playing better, the Penguins know he isn’t unbeatable. They faced Halak twice this season, going 1-1, including a scoring outburst on Oct. 28 at Mellon Arena which saw Halak get pulled after 40 minutes because the Penguins victimized him four times on 23 shots.
Halak’s numbers in those two starts against Pittsburgh are rather pedestrian – 4.20 goals-against average and .841 save percentage – so the Penguins might have that successful formula Washington could never muster up.
“There is no thing where we have to sit in this room and figure out something magical or different,” Crosby said. “The things that we preach and the habits that we practice all year are so that we can score goals. Goalies are going to make saves. (Pascal) Leclaire made 55 or whatever against us in the last series. It’s going to happen. You have to get traffic and get rebounds if he is playing well and be up for that traffic. We don’t have to change anything.”
“I think we’re going to try a different approach to score goals than Washington did, and hopefully have more success against a guy who is playing well, playing with the confidence that he gives his team and the way they’re playing,” Bylsma said. “We’re not going to be trying to score on every shot. We’re going to put pucks into that area. If we have a great chance to score we’ll try to score. But we’re also going to be focused on getting pucks there, past their defense and in that area and go to work with our net-front presence.”