BROSSARD, Que. – At a team skate before Game 5 of their playoff series in Washington last week, Montreal Canadiens Mike Cammalleri and Andrei Markov decided they’d have some fun with goaltender Jaroslav Halak.
“It was a drill where the defenceman shoots and if there’s a rebound you play it,” Cammalleri said Tuesday. “But we were playing the rebound, then passing back door for the open net, which is kind of not fair.
“In a game, you’re never going to have that much time. As he was getting more angry, me and Marky were doing it more and more. Ah sucker! You know? He ended up playing great. So see? You can do whatever. He’s not a guy you’re afraid to talk to or whatever.
“If you do that to some goalies, they’ll go right out of their net, into the locker room and they won’t talk to you for two days.”
Halak went out that night and made 37 saves in a 2-1 victory that kept Montreal alive in a series the high-scoring Capitals had hitherto dominated.
Then he came back to Montreal and produced his masterpiece, a 53-save gem to lead the Canadiens to a 4-1 victory and even the best-of-seven NHL Eastern Conference series at three wins apiece. That set up a decisive Game 7 in Washington on Wednesday night.
Few people gave the eighth-seeded Canadiens any chance of beating the first-place overall Capitals. But the prospect of a winner-take-all seventh game had Canadiens fans for the first time since the playoffs started flying team flags and tooting horns in the street after the game.
A debate emerged on where Halak’s performance stood in Canadiens history, with Ken Dryden’s heroics as a rookie in the 1971 post-season against Chicago and Patrick Roy’s overtime brilliance in 1986 against the New York Rangers as leading comparisons.
Halak will likely need another big game to get Montreal into the second round against a team whose shooters look increasingly desperate and frustrated.
The Capitals will also be without one of their top defencemen, Tom Poti, who took a puck in the eye in the second period of Game 6. In Washington, coach Bruce Boudreau said Poti, who pairs with rookie John Carlson, called it a “pretty significant injury” and said he may be out for two or three weeks.
Defence prospect Karl Alzner was called up from AHL Hershey.
After the game, Halak couldn’t stop grinning as he met with the media, even though, as usual, he deflected much of the credit to his teammates for clearing rebounds and blocking shots. As well as the 54 shots that reached Halak, 23 more were blocked and another 17 missed the net.
He drew laughs when, asked to describe his performance, he said: “I’d say, another day at the office.”
And asked about the 90 saves he made over two must-win games, he said: “It’s only stops, it’s only numbers. It’s a team game and if you don’t win, you’re not successful. Every game is different. We’ll see what happens.”
Halak seems to thrive on activity, going unbeaten in regulation time in 13 games this season in which he faced 35 or more shots.
“Maybe we should let him have 70 shots a game and we’d have the Cup,” centre Scott Gomez joked before adding: “Really, you can’t give them that many chances. They’re so good.”
Halak seems to take everything in stride.
The poor cousin to 2005 fifth overall draft pick Carey Price for most of the past five years, Halak has kept his head down and risen step by step to his current position as the Canadiens go-to goaltender.
The Bratislava native was chosen 271st in the 2003 draft after leading Slovakia to a silver medal at the world under-18 championships. He put in one season with Lewiston of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, then dominated the ECHL with Long Beach before joining the AHL Hamilton Bulldogs in 2006.
While he was Hamilton’s top goalie in the 2006-07 season, the Canadiens brought Price up from junior to be the playoff starter and he went on to win a Calder Cup, while Halak went to play for his national team in the IIHF world championship.
He was called up to stay by the Canadiens when Cristobal Huet was dealt at the trade deadline in 2008 and played a big role in getting Montreal into the playoffs, but Price was named the starter for the post-season, losing in the first round to Philadelphia. Halak played one game, a 4-2 defeat.
Since then, two camps have formed between fans who prefer the six-foot-three Price’s natural talent and potential, and five-foot-11 Halak’s consistency and discipline.
The Canadiens may have to make a choice this summer as both will be restricted free agents and, while they could sign both, neither is likely to want to continue sharing the net.
After returning from the Olympics in Vancouver, where he shone in a 36-save 2-1 Slovak win over Russia only to look ordinary in losing the bronze medal game to Finland, Halak led the Canadiens into the post-season again, only this time, he was the starter.
He got Montreal going with a 3-2 overtime win in Game 1, but then faltered in the next two, allowing eight goals in a 30-shot span. Price took over for Game 4 and lost 6-3, and since then Halak has been almost unbeatable.
“There’s no doubt that the competition between the two goaltenders makes them both better,” said coach Jacques Martin. “They both progressed, on and off the ice, as individuals, as professionals.”
But for now, Halak is the one they will lean on to help them pull off an upset against superstar Alex Ovechkin and the gifted but sometimes defensively suspect Capitals. If there are any nerves, the 24-year-old hasn’t shown it.
“We talked last night about staying on an even keel and getting ready for the next one,” Cammalleri said of Halak. “He seems to be like that all the time.
“That’s probably one of his biggest strengths. I can’t tell if he’s just won a game or just lost one.”
Cammalleri had two goals and an assist in Game 6 and leads the series with 10 points – one more than Ovechkin and centre Nicklas Backstrom. Two more points in Game seven would tie a team record for points in one series shared by six Canadiens legends – Guy Lafleur (twice), Toe Blake, Bernard (Boom Boom) Geoffrion, Dickie Moore, Yvan Cournoyer and Jacques Lemaire.
“One of my big responsibilities on this team is to produce offensively, so it’s something I take seriously,” he said. “It’s important that we score goals to beat these guys.”
Defenceman Jaroslav Spacek, who missed the last three games with a virus, made the trip to Washington but remains uncertain to play. His spot alongside Roman Hamrlik was filled by rookie P.K. Subban, who got his first NHL playoff assist on his second shift.
All-time, the Canadiens are 11-7 in Game 7s, while Washington is 2-6. The Capitals’ last four playoff series have gone to a seventh game. They hosted the last three, losing 3-2 in OT to Philadelphia in 2008, beating the Rangers 2-1 in the first round last year and then losing 6-2 to Pittsburgh in the conference semifinals.
Montreal hopes to win after trailing 3-1 for the second time in its history, having topped Boston in the first round in 2004. They also won a Game 7 over the Bruins by 5-0 in 2008.
The NHL reports that Halak’s 53 regulation time saves were third most since the statistic was first kept in 1968. Tom Barrasso had 56 for Pittsburgh in 1996 and Jiri Crha had 55 for Toronto in 1980.