Remember the last time Jaroslav Halak played in the NHL playoffs?
Sure you do. It was just two years ago when the cheerful, smiling goaltender led the underdog Montreal Canadiens to a pair of massive upsets, including the elimination of the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round.
Then, there was the goaltending controversy after the fact: Keep the playoff hero Halak or the young-but-improving Carey Price?
There was also some vague thought that the Habs were legitimately on their way to a turnaround during that joyful run – a sentiment further fuelled by last year’s gripping seven-game, opening-round series against the eventual champions from Boston.
Talk about water under the bridge. It feels like a torrent has surged past since then, with the Canadiens limping towards 15th place in the Eastern Conference, while Halak is helping to backstop his current squad, the St. Louis Blues, to first place in the West.
Curiously, Halak is doing it in much the same manner as he did in Montreal, sharing a crease with a 1A-netminder (Brian Elliott), the two of them finding ways to make their partnership work.
Elliott and Halak are one-two in most of the NHL’s major goaltending categories, usually a sure sign the team they play behind is defensively sound. The presence of head coach Ken Hitchcock at the Blues helm also reinforces that notion. As one team after another fades and surges in the West, St. Louis resolutely plows ahead – and now, with less than three weeks to go in the regular season, the Blues seem assured of claiming the No. 1 seed.
On a team with a limited postseason pedigree, does Halak’s experience in Montreal –1,013 minutes, nine victories, 2.55 goals-against average – matter?
“That counts,” Hitchcock said. “That counts a lot. You’ve got to have your game in order and his game has been in order for a long time. He’s just got a calm demeanour in the goal. I thought, comparing his style to last year, he was impatient in his game, attacking too many pucks, and now he’s waiting on it. He’s got the patience going. I think he’s also good if he knows where the shots are coming from. So the way we play, he kind of has an idea of where they’re coming from and how to set up position-wise.”
According to Darren Pang, a former NHL goaltender turned TV colour commentator for Blues games, Halak overcame a slow start almost as soon as Hitchcock replaced Davis Payne 13 games into the 2011-12 season.
“Hitch takes over before a game against Chicago Blackhawks and says, ‘Halak’s my guy,’ and he gets a shutout that night. He’s been in a zone, as well or better than any goalie in the NHL, from that point on,” Pang said.
“[Halak]just felt, ‘Hitch is an experienced coach, he coached Ed Belfour, I trust him, and basically our system’s good, our players care,’ and his game just turned 360 [degrees] He’s playing now like he did for Montreal in the playoffs.”
As much as the Montreal playoff experience was one of his best times in the NHL, his thoughts are squarely rooted in the present, Halak says.
“I mean, it’s always a great memory, but I just want to focus on what’s going to happen in the future, and on what’s happening right now,” the 26-year-old Slovakian netminder said.
That attitude seems to be serving Halak (25-10-6, 1.85 GAA) well these days. He isn’t overwhelmed by the attention in St. Louis the way he was in Montreal. Early on, Hitchcock twigged to the fact Halak could be low-maintenance.
“Jaro is a guy, other than to say, ‘You’re starting,’ that’s about all we tell him. He has his own routine. The goalie coach works with him a little bit, but he’s got a good focus right now. We leave him alone.”
Halak isn’t trying to overanalyze anything either. There’s a real go-with-the-flow attitude – no paralysis by analysis.
“You know, when you’re on a good run, you don’t think about many things, you just go out and play and try to have fun and help the guys get the points and win the games,” he said. “That’s all you can do as a goalie.
“Right now, we are in the playoffs. Not everybody makes it. We are one of the fortunate ones that can play for the Cup. It’s a great feeling right now. We’ve just got to stay with [our]feet on the ground.”