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Team Europe goaltender Jaroslav Halak makes a save on Sweden during second period semi-final World Cup of Hockey action in Toronto on Sunday, September 25, 2016. (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Team Europe goaltender Jaroslav Halak makes a save on Sweden during second period semi-final World Cup of Hockey action in Toronto on Sunday, September 25, 2016. (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Jaroslav Halak needs mighty effort to top Carey Price and Team Canada Add to ...

It seems like madness now, but six years ago, a fiery debate about the future of the Canadiens crease raged in Montreal.

Carey Price had not yet become the top goalie in the sport, nudged aside for playing time that spring by Jaroslav Halak, a hotshot ninth-round pick from Slovakia. Brilliant at points, Halak helped the Canadiens reach their first Eastern Conference final in almost 20 years.

He was traded to St. Louis less than a month later.

Price and Halak are now set to compete on a different stage as starting netminders for the World Cup finalists from Canada and Europe.

“I think there’s going to be, I don’t want to say a rivalry, but both guys know who’s at the other end,” Team Canada general manager Doug Armstrong said.

Armstrong, also the St. Louis Blues GM, traded for Halak following that strong playoff run for Montreal in 2010.

The two goalies occupy very different spaces for their respective teams heading into the World Cup final. Halak will likely require more brilliance if Europe is to somehow topple Canada two times in a best-of-three series. Good will likely suffice for Price in front of a Canadian squad that’s steamrolled past everyone to this point.

Halak has propped up his team in their journey to an unlikely berth in the final, second to Price (.948) with a .947 save percentage at the World Cup (among regulars). He pitched a 35-save shutout in a shocking tournament-opening win over the United States, stopped 28 of 30 shots in a victory over the Czechs and edged Henrik Lundqvist with 37 saves in Europe’s semifinal upset over Sweden this past weekend.

“That definitely has been the biggest reason we are where we are,” defenceman Andrej Sekera said.

“It’s the best I’ve seen him,” added Europe’s GM Miroslav Satan, a former teammate of Halak with the Slovakian national team. “He’s definitely one of the cornerstones of our success.”

Bouncing from Montreal to St. Louis to Washington before landing as the New York Islanders starter for the past two seasons, Halak became Europe’s undisputed No. 1 by chance. Frederik Andersen, the Toronto Maple Leafs new netminder and Halak’s primary competition for the role, pulled out with injury just before the start of the tournament.

Halak, 31, gave up four goals on 46 shots in a preliminary round loss to Canada and will presumably face a similar barrage in the upcoming final.

Greatness has not been required of Price so far at the World Cup. Bursting with NHL stars, the Canadian squad has been notorious for hogging the puck while spending long shifts in the offensive zone. Only occasional flurries come Price’s way and on those he was sharp through the semifinals.

He stopped seven of eight Nikita Kucherov shots over the weekend, including one potentially dangerous rush early in the opening frame of a 5-3 Canadian win.

“It can be challenging,” Price said of the limited action, “especially when you see the guy at the other end’s playing very well. But at the same time I just need to stay focused on what I need to do, which is stop the next shot. I’m just trying to stay mentally engaged and just bear down when the puck comes down.”

Price vaulted into the Vezina Trophy conversation in the season after Halak departed (2010-2011), eventually winning the award as well as the Hart Trophy for league MVP in 2015. He also guided Canada to a gold medal with a near-perfect performance at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.

The fact that some in Montreal (though not management) were prepared to part with him in favour of Halak is both a testament to Halak’s performance that year and Price’s own early stumbles. He posted a .912 save percentage in 41 games during the 2009-10 season, outplayed by Halak who managed a .924 mark in 45 games.

Halak also started 18 games in the playoffs versus just one for Price.

Now 29, Price says he’s grown up since then.

“I was still pretty young, early in my career at that point in my life,” said Price, the fifth overall pick of the 2005 draft. “I just kind of grew up a little bit more.”

Like he did six years ago Halak will have to outplay Price once more, only this time opposite a goaltender that’s on top of the sport and for a shot at the World Cup crown no less.

“We’re very comfortable with our goalie and I know they’re very comfortable with their goalie,” Armstrong said. “It should be very interesting.”

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