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The Rise Of Matt Halischuk

by Jay Levin / Nashville Predators
Not too long ago, Matt Halischuk was grinding it out for Milwaukee in the AHL, but on Saturday, he scored one of the biggest goals in Predators franchise history.

What a road trip for Matt Halischuk! When the Predators left Nashville for Vancouver last Wednesday, he was “the guy we got for Jason Arnott” … now as the team return to Nashville, he’s the Game 2 hero with a history of scoring clutch overtime goals.

The roar he got from the crowd of fans gathered at the airport on Sunday afternoon to welcome the team back from Vancouver is proof of how popular the young forward has quickly become.

“Last night on the Hockey Night in Canada broadcast they were saying there was over five million people watching the game; I’m pretty sure there have never been five million people watching a Predators game before, so when you score a goal in overtime and your name is Matt Halischuk, if they didn’t know you before then, there’s a good chance they’re going to know you now,” Predators General Manager David Poile said. “I think what we’re finding out is the playoffs are another level – maybe it is like 10 more levels higher; just the exposure that you’re getting, locally, nationally, internationally; the amount of people who are either attending the games or watching the games on TV or reading about the games in the paper or on the internet, the exposure is huge.”

After all, this is the same Matt Halischuk who was the hero for Team Canada at the 2008 World Junior Championships, scoring the overtime winner in the Gold Medal Game against Sweden in their backyard. And, he was a leading player on a loaded Kitchener team in the Ontario Hockey League – a team that included current Preds teammate Nick Spaling.

“Before we made the trade (with New Jersey) last summer, we knew he was a good player – a Predator-type player, more blue-collar, great work ethic, very smart – and the fact that he played on a line with Nick Spaling, there certainly was some symmetry there that made the deal attractive to us,” Poile said. “And then the benefit of that showed up Saturday night in our overtime when Coach Trotz shuffled his lines and Halischuk was on the ice at the same time as Spaling and the magic reappeared and the success those two had back in junior happened again for us.”

Coach Trotz believes the experiences Halischuk had early in his development has not only helped him make the jump to the NHL, but has helped him adjust easily to the pressures of the NHL playoffs. “Any experience you can get on a big stage, no matter what level you are at, helps your development,” Head Coach Barry Trotz said. “And now he’s been on a few big stages. The Memorial Cup, the World Junior tournament, those are good memories you can go back to and pull up when it’s needed.”

And 34:51 into extra time – with just 5:09 remaining in the second overtime period – that’s exactly what Halischuk did, taking a feed from Spaling and sniping a shot into the upper corner above Roberto Luongo’s left shoulder for the game winner to send the series back to Nashville tied one game a piece.

But still, Game One, the Nashville coaches weren’t pleased with the team’s performance. Coach Trotz let it slip that might explore tweaking the lineup and even let 13 forwards skate in pre-game warm-ups before Game Two (ultimately opting to remain with the same 12 forwards as Game One); among media and fan speculation, Halischuk appeared one of the more likely options to come out of the lineup if someone new was coming in – the top-six forwards bring a higher skill level than the Preds have on the sidelines, Jordin Tootoo brings too much energy, Steve Sullivan brings veteran presence and good speed, Spaling and Jerred Smithson are too valuable on the penalty kill, Blake Geoffrion is a natural center (and the Preds are a little light on natural centers); Halischuk, conjecture went, was a little easier to replace with a Colin Wilson or a J-P Dumont. At least that was the speculation around the press room.
But Halischuk remained in the lineup and put together a solid outing, even before scoring the overtime winner.

“I think Matt is one of those players very similar to Nick Spaling, they both do a really good job, adjust well,” Trotz said. “Matt’s game doesn’t change up at the NHL level; he has a good sense of the game, good work ethic, lots of detail. I think when he first came up he had a little bit of nervousness, but as he’s played more and more, he’s played very comfortable. To me, him and Nick Spaling are cut from the same cloth; detailed, they absorb what message we’re trying to get across and they understand the game real well.”

Halischuk’s success hasn’t been limited to just the playoffs; he had a strong showing in Training Camp, but was caught in a numbers game with several veteran forwards already on the NHL roster and opened the year in Milwaukee. He was one of the best forwards night in and night out for Admirals and when the Preds called Halischuk up for the first time in mid-January at the start of the team’s monster road trip which the Preds finished 3-3-0 – rather impressive considering the competition (three of the six teams made the playoffs and a fourth was in a playoff seed at the time the game started) and the number of injuries the team was battling (just among the forwards, Cal O’Reilly, Sullivan, Marek Svatos, Tootoo were all out and Martin Erat had just returned from a nine-game absence). Halischuk notched two assists in his second game, a big win at Phoenix, and scored a goal in his third game, a win a Colorado.
Injured players returned to the lineup and Halischuk was forced back to Milwaukee of the American Hockey League, but he handled it like a pro; continued to work hard and proved he belonged in the NHL. On his second recall, he helped the Predators to a 6-3-2 record. Then, on the second end of a back-to-back stretch, the coaches inserted Dumont into the lineup at Buffalo; Dumont-Blake Geoffrion-Wilson clicked, producing three late goals to force overtime in a thrilling come-from-behind win. Dumont remained in the lineup and Halischuk was relegated sidelines, but once again he continued to work hard in practice and when re-inserted into the lineup two weeks later, he recorded two goals and three assists in the team’s last five games of the regular season, to go along with high-energy minutes.

But in one shot on one shift in the second overtime of the second game of Nashville’s first trip to the second round, Halischuk elevated himself several rungs in Preds-lore… moving from another young prospect bouncing between Milwaukee and Nashville, to the potential series savior.

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