Stanley Cup playoffs: Halak leads the way for Canadiens
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It could have been a test of nerves for anyone, getting yanked from Game 3, sitting on the bench for Game 4, then coming in to face Washington, the top team in the NHL, for three consecutive elimination games, two of them on the road.
It was no sweat for Montreal goaltender Jaroslav Halak.
"Amazing performance," said former Penguins center Dominic Moore after the Canadiens arrived in town Thursday for their opener tonight at Mellon Arena against the Penguins in Round 2 of the playoffs.
"He was so steady in there, so calm amid the storm of shots. That's the kind of thing that's huge this time of year, to have a goalie that's confident."
Halak, 24, parked behind a phalanx of shot-blocking teammates, stymied the Capitals who like to score off the rush. He brushed aside 131 of the 134 shots that got through in Games 5, 6 and 7 as Montreal pulled off a huge upset by coming back from a 3-1 deficit to oust the Capitals -- the first No. 8 seed to do that.
He was the winning goalie in every Montreal victory. He shut down the team that led the regular season with 318 goals -- no other team topped 300 -- and thwarted Capitals star winger Alex Ovechkin, who had one goal on 24 shots in the last three games.
"You do get in a zone where the puck looks like a basketball. That's what it looks like was happening to him," Penguins goaltending coach Gilles Meloche said of Halak, who enters the second round with a .939 save percentage.
"He's picks up everything out of the crowd. Even if he's out of position, the puck kind of draws back to him. He's playing at the top of his game."
The Penguins plan to attack differently than the Capitals, partly because they play a different style of offense and partly because the Canadiens showed that speeding down the ice and shooting from the perimeter against them is most likely to result in blocks and saves.
Getting a forecheck going, working the puck in around the net, seems like a better bet.
"We're going to try, probably, a different approach on how to score goals than Washington did and, hopefully, have a little bit more success against a guy who's playing very well with a lot of confidence," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.
"We're not going to be trying to score with every shot. We're going to try to put pucks into that area [down low]. When we have a great chance to score, we'll be trying to score, but we're also going to be focused on getting pucks by their defense and in and around that area and go to work with some of our net-front presence with some of our guys."
Then there is the mental aspect of combating a goaltender who is on fire.
"You can't let the way a goalie's playing change your game or get in your head," Penguins defenseman Mark Eaton said. "Our focus doesn't change."
Besides, Eaton said, as good as Halak was, knocking off Washington was not a one-man effort.
"They also played really well in front of him. They had that defensive mentality," he said. "They pack five guys around the high-scoring areas and make it tough to get shots.
"But our game plan isn't going to change based on a hot goalie or what's going on. You watch the Washington series, and a lot of it was what Montreal did, keeping more perimeter shots. You want to try to penetrate a little more, get to traffic and try and take away his [ability to see the shots], score dirty goals."
Halak played in slightly more games than Carey Price for Montreal in the regular season, but won a good bit more. He was 26-13-5 with five shutouts, a 2.40 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage.
In February, Halak made a splash at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, helping Slovakia advance to the bronze-medal game before losing to Finland. Along the way, Slovakia beat Ovechkin and Russia, as well as Sweden (he made a big save late on Nicklas Lidstrom, reminiscent of the Penguins' Marc-Andre Fleury's stop in Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup final), before eventual gold-medalist Canada beat the Slovaks in the semifinals.
"He's no fluke," said Meloche, who has watched Halak since his days as a junior goalie. "He's a good goalie. He's a good positional goalie.
"But, as good as he's been in the last three games, he really must be in the zone."
How long does such a thing last?
"Could be those three games, could be longer," Meloche said. "I don't believe you can keep that up for a period of 10, 15, 20 games -- not if you keep giving up the kind of chances they gave up [against Washington]."
First Published April 30, 2010 12:00 am