Facing the surging Flyers in an unlikely conference final, Canadiens goaltender Jaroslav Halak has won over his hockey-mad city
This is an article from the May 24, 2010 issue
The thing with a hockey franchise that has been around for a century and won 24 Stanley Cups is that no matter what happens, invariably there has been a more memorable championship, a more stunning victory or a more impressive riot.
Like a tropical storm that never quite graduates to hurricane status, the violence on Ste. Catherine Street in Montreal after a Game 7 win on May 12 that sent the Canadiens to a conference final for the first time in 17 years seemingly did not qualify as a full-scale riot by exacting community standards. Most of the media described the event—41 arrests, some looting, a soup√ßon of tear gas—with the alliterative "mayhem in Montreal," not that the nuance mattered to the province-run liquor store that was ransacked for thousands of dollars worth of booze. To its credit, the city tidies up well. Fourteen hours after a celebration of 50,000 jumped the rails, there was little to gawk at on the downtown thoroughfare: one small pile of vomit, a boarded-up door at a Foot Locker and backup goalie Carey Price, in plaid shirt and jeans, taking an afternoon stroll.
Once, Montreal hockey-related riots were epic. They either had social significance—the 1955 Richard Riot, sparked by the NHL's suspension of star wing Maurice Richard, often is considered the start of the so-called Quiet Revolution in Quebec society—or they served as exclamation points to championships. The last of those was in 1993, when cars were torched and looters battled cops until almost dawn. Alas, now a second-round series clinched in Pittsburgh is riot-worthy. "People," says chief inspector Sylvain Lemay, a 21-year veteran of the Montreal police force, "become happier, faster."
At least the mayhem makers, estimated at 400 to 500 by police, showed creativity. Looters hit a high-end women's clothing boutique, not to swipe size 0s—your looter demographic generally shuns haute couture—but to grab mannequins, dismember them and use limbs to shatter windows at the sneaker emporium and the liquor store. They also showed an acute sense of timing, making merry while they still could. The Canadiens opened the Eastern Conference final Sunday with an ugly 6--0 loss in Philadelphia, which star Montreal defenseman Andrei Markov missed because of a torn ACL he sustained in the Penguins series. The boutique, however, was down three mannequins.
The playoffs are about attrition.
While a city swept up the shards last Thursday after a dizzying month in which the NHL's 19th-best team first eliminated the President's Trophy--winning Capitals and then the defending-champion Penguins in seven games, Canadiens third-liner Dominic Moore relaxed by watching the Madrid Open tennis tournament. He was startled when, during the Rafael Nadal--John Isner match, a camera settled on a man holding a red octagonal sign with HALAK instead of STOP. Says Moore, "We're global."
The Ste. Catherine Street commotion is not the only reason Montreal burrowed into world consciousness last week. A 25-year-old Slovak goalie named Jaroslav Halak became famous as determined by two infallible modern touchstones—the Internet and T-shirts. The e-mail in-box of seemingly every Montrealer, including the goalie, contained a picture of the HALAK stop sign the morning after Washington was ousted. (Note to Caps flameout Alexander Ovechkin: You were right. Halak's hand was shaking when he drank from the water bottle during Game 2. It was because the bottle was nearly empty and he was squeezing the last drops out of it. You challenge Dr. Stop's manhood at your peril.) In a city that has bickered about whether signs should read ARR√äT or STOP, HALAK met universal acclaim. (The nonlicensed tees, of course, followed, $14.99 online.) Last week the Quebec cartoonist Ygreck drew a crouched Halak gazing at the Gulf of Mexico, preparing to halt the BP oil leak.
His ride hasn't been pothole-free. After allowing four goals on 14 shots in Game 1 in Philadelphia, he was pulled midway through the second period—the third time this postseason he's been relieved. But against Washington and Pittsburgh, he rallied to win his next start. "No concern whatsoever," said winger Mike Cammalleri after the Philly wipeout. "Jaro's had games where pucks have gone in on him before, and he's bounced back and played spectacular. We love our goaltender."
"I'm not a superhero, I'm just a normal human being," Halak says. "Just a goalie."
Sure. Halak won five elimination games, three on the road, while stopping 202 of 210 shots against the crazy-good Capitals and Penguins. If Montreal stages a Stanley Cup parade next month, he rides in the Batmobile.
There are four statues outside the Bell Centre, a hockey palace a few blocks south of Ste. Catherine Street. Considering the Canadiens produced Jacques Plante, Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy, it might seem odd that no goaltender has been bronzed. (The honorees: Richard, Howie Morenz, Jean Béliveau and Guy Lafleur. No arguments there.) The absence of a goaltender, however, is hardly a snub. Montreal appreciates goalies but is not obsessed with the position. During an unexpected playoff run coated with a luxuriant layer of pixie dust, the city has genuflected in Halak's direction. But it has been almost as enthralled with Cammalleri and his 12 goals, as many as Lafleur ever scored in one postseason, and the hell-bent-for-rejection shot blocking of defensemen Hal Gill and Josh Gorges, who took a night off from their customary roles as pi√±atas in the Game 1 defeat. "Two power-play goals they had that I had to get a block on," says Gill. "If I get out of the way, [Jaro] can see it. If I block it, it doesn't get through. I have to do one or the other."
But sublime play from surprising goaltenders is a cornerstone of Montreal mythology. In 1971 there was Dryden, who would be the playoff MVP that season before becoming Rookie of the Year the next; and in 1986 there was Roy, a rookie who would make the butterfly style the industry standard. The elegant Dryden was fresh out of Cornell; the twitchy Roy talked to his goalposts. Halak's distinguishing feature is his stupendous shot total.
Certainly he has not been bored. In his 11 full playoff games he has faced an average of 37.9 shots. Halak—who flashes an unusually good glove hand for a European, and who rarely seems ruffled in the heavy traffic around the crease—says he finds it "fun." "I look up at the shot clock all the time," says Mathieu Darche, a fourth-liner, "and when it gets to 35 or 40 against us, I'm like, 'Yes, we're going to win, guys. Jaro loves these.'" (Montreal has lost all four games in which it has had more shots.) Paradoxically, a better measure of Halak's play, and industry, is the nebulous category of scoring chances. According to the Canadiens' internal numbers, Pittsburgh had 93 gilt-edged scoring chances in the second-round, 40 more than Montreal. Washington had an astounding 116.
"Your goalie is supposed to steal you one once in a while, but for us it's almost been the norm," Cammalleri says. "I'm not going to sit here and tell you we're a great hockey team. We're trying to get better. We want to be playing in the other team's zone, to attack more. But it's a testament to our goaltending and our character that even if we have to play 50 minutes in our own end, we'll find a way to win. This isn't rope-a-dope. Everyone seems to think we've got this formula, but we're not sitting in the room and saying, 'O.K., guys, let's all stand in front of the hash marks and let Jaro stop 60 a game.'"
Halak didn't even see 60 shots last November. He played one game that month, serving as a baseball cap--wearing handmaid. The 22-year-old Price was the dauphin, drafted with the fifth pick in 2005, a star at the world junior and AHL levels, a starter in the 2009 NHL All-Star Game. He owned the net by divine right. The then G.M. Bob Gainey called him "a thoroughbred." Halak, meanwhile, was Mr. Ed. He was a ninth-round choice, 26th out of the 28 goalies selected in 2003, a plugger who played a season in the Quebec junior league and who began his professional career in the East Coast Hockey League. The only thing he seemed to do as well as Price during four NHL seasons was win consistently, at least when given the chance—he has started 96 regular-season games, compared with Price's 128 in the past three years.
After Price lost to the Lightning last November, Halak's agent, Allan Walsh, tweeted, "Interesting stat of the night ... Price is 10W, 32L in last 42 starts. Hmm." Walsh was panned for engaging in a little antisocial social media, but in fewer than 140 characters he had established a pressure point that roiled the fan base. Only Gainey seemed unmoved. He told the Montreal-based news website ruefrontenac.com that he had offered Halak to the Flyers after No. 1 Ray Emery, one of seven Philadelphia netminders to dress this season, suffered an abdominal injury on Dec. 5.
"Last year I played 34 games," says Halak. "This year I was hoping to play more. It was kinda hard in the beginning, but everything turned in December." Halak earned the starting role then by winning six of seven starts, including two shutouts—a springboard into an excellent Olympic tournament in which he beat Russia 2--1 in a shootout. "That was a great chance to play against the best players in the world," he says. "I wouldn't say it changed the way I played, but maybe it gave me a little more confidence."
"He's the feel-good story of the playoffs because he's had to earn it, " Cammalleri says. "The things in life that are truly worth having are supposed to come that way, aren't they?"
The moral of the story: In the NHL, apparently, it's never too late to win, or too early to riot.
Both the Flyers and the Canadiens put off qualifying for the playoffs until Game 82 of the regular season—Philly with a shootout win, Montreal with an overtime loss. The Flyers reached the conference final by not merely rallying from a three-game deficit against the Bruins in the second round but also from a three-goal deficit in Game 7. They did it while playing the last 2½ games in front of oft-waived goalie Michael Leighton, who took over from injured starter Brian Boucher. The Canadiens made it by winning two Game 7s on the road against marquee teams. They were led by a Lilliputian forward in the 5'9" Cammalleri and bolstered by Halak, who turned a corner only to become an international stop sign.
The lesson should not be lost on those who made a spectacle of themselves midway through the NHL's Stanley Cup spectacle. Yes, this is a riot of spring in Montreal. But after 24 Cups, have the grace to act like you've made it to a conference final before.
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