So, the Montreal story continues. Mostly, though, it has been the Jaroslav Halak party, as the Canadiens goaltender turns in gem after gem. Sure, coach Jacques Martin hooked him twice and didn't even play him in Game 4 of Montreal's first round series against Washington. Still, Halak's Game 5 through 7 performances in that series and his 38-save outing in Game 2 at Pittsburgh on Sunday were some of the best technical goaltending turned in anywhere. The fact that it hasn't all been "in the zone" makes his four stolen games all the more impressive from a mental standpoint. Talk about the ability to clear and restore.
That shouldn't surprise us, though. Halak has been somewhat of an afterthought in the Habs goaltending stable since his arrival. Or, at least since the Carey Price motorcade rolled into town. The two are a couple of years apart, but Price was the ordained one as the fifth overall pick in the 2005 draft, while Halak was merely the "other young netminder" -- the depth guy -- taken with the 271st pick in 2003. He has had to fight to get in the net, battle to stay in the net, and work on his craft an awful lot in between -- from Long Beach in the ECHL to long sessions after practice as a backup in the AHL and NHL.
Much of that work was with former goaltending coach Rollie Melanson, who the Habs dismissed last offseason and replaced with Pierre Groulx. No matter. I'm sure Melanson is smiling at the progress of his hard-working student. Halak seemed to respond better to Rollie the Goalie's relentless approach than did Price. Again, that's not surprising since Halak had to work harder for his opportunities and stay sharp over the past couple of seasons as the Canadiens continued to play Price ahead of him. Not that they shouldn't have. Price debuted as anticipated, looking like the next star between the pipes in the NHL.
In fact, things didn't really get sticky for the Canadiens with regard to having two young, aspiring number one netminders until Price injured his ankle during the 2008-09 season. He came back and struggled like never before. He began this year playing quite well, but found winning elusive. His goals-against and save percentage actually improved from his sophomore season, but neither came close to the marks and expectations established during his rookie campaign.
In the meantime, Halak kept building a case to play more because he won more often. He was consistent for longer stretches, or maybe more accurately, when he got hot, he maintained that level of excellence longer. In any event, Halak returned from the Olympics having played well for Slovakia, and Martin turned to him almost exclusively down the stretch, with Price getting in just five games.
Now, Halak is garnering the accolades once reserved for Price, coming through on the biggest stage in the playoffs. Spring success makes players and defines careers. What defines Halak technically as I watch him up close is the teaching of Melanson. There is fluidity to his lateral leg recovery moves in his butterfly that is reminiscent of Melanson's first success story, Jose Theodore. In fact, Halak and Theodore are similar in stature, with both being less than six feet tall and 180 pounds, which is on the smallish side by today's standards. Yet, Halak is playing big, just as Theodore did in his best days with the Canadiens in winning the Vezina and Hart trophies in 2002.
The internal fight; the will to succeed; the intangibles, however, is all Jaroslav Halak.