Hockey's Top Moments 2009-10: Halak carries Habs' post-season on his back

09/20/2010 12:00:00 PM
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With another hockey season just around the corner, TSN.ca looks back at the most unforgettable moments of 2009-10; from Stanley Cup overtime to Canadian Olympic gold and everything in between; join us as TSN.ca revisits “Hockey's Unforgettable Moments” from the last 12 months. Game on!

Jaroslav Halak's time as the number one goalie for the Montreal Canadiens may have been short, but it was oh-so sweet. For a month in the spring of 2010, his stunning playoff performances dazzled Habs fans and spurred the team to its deepest playoff run since the 1993 Stanley Cup win. One game in particular cemented Halak’s place on the list of most unforgettable moments of the past year.

Prior to the 2009-10 season, Carey Price had been declared the team’s starter and Halak the backup. But inconsistency and volatility plagued Price and ultimately cost him the starting job. Halak took over the number one spot and finished the season with a 26-13-5 record, including a stellar Olympic performance for Slovakia, and an impressive .940 save percentage.

Nevertheless, heading into the playoffs, expectations weren’t particularly high for a team that had won just three of their final 14 games in the regular season and was now facing an intimidating Washington Capitals team that had led the league in points and scoring and possessed the electrifying talents of Alex Ovechkin.

To the surprise of many, the Canadiens won Game 1 in overtime. However, the delirium in La Belle Province didn’t last long. After dropping Game 2, Halak was pulled in Game 3 and supplanted by Price as the Game 4 starter, both losses; suddenly the Habs found themselves down three games to one and facing the very real possibility of a first-round exit.

But, as they say in the playoffs, anything can happen. In Washington for Game 5 and with Halak back in net, the Habs eked out a 2-1 win thanks to 37 saves by their netminder – a sign of things to come.

Though the Habs won Game 5, it should be Game 6 that is considered the true turning point of their playoff run. With the full confidence of fans and teammates alike, it is in Game 6 that Jaroslav Halak showed what ‘Halak Attack’ really means.

The Capitals were relentless, sending 54 shots on net, 18 of those belonging to Ovechkin and Joe Corvo. Halak saved 53 of them and the Habs won 4-1 to even the series at 3-3.

"At one point in the third period Halak stopped a barrage of Washington shots coming from short range in rapid succession," recalls TSN reporter John Lu. "I don't know what the shot counter read at the time, but I remember turning to my neighbour in the pressbox, shaking my head in disbelief and saying to him, 'Tonight Jaro will become this generation of (Canadiens) fans' Patrick Roy.'"

Habs fans have never been shy about sharing their love, or disappointment, with ‘Les Glourieux’; but on this night it looked more like a Metallica concert, and Halak's performance even inspired a Wayne's World-esque "we are not worthy" display of bowing (with full arm extension) from the fans.

The previous high for stops in a regulation time playoff game by a Canadien was Ken Dryden's 47 saves in a 7-3 loss to the Bruins back in 1971.

It was amazing how quickly things had seemed to turn around for Montreal. Before the series, and even before Game 6, many wondered aloud whether Halak was the right choice between the pipes. His performance silenced the critics on that night.

"Obviously it's great feeling, especially in the playoffs, winning a game like that," the 25-year-old said after Game 6. "No one even gave us a chance, but tonight, we stuck to the game plan, we played hard and it paid off at the end. It feels great, but there's another game ahead of us and we have to get ready."

The team was grateful; without their keeper, they would have been off to the golf links.

"Huge saves. Big, big-time saves," said winger Brian Gionta. "We got two early goals, we wanted to get the lead, and then he shut the door. It was him from that point on. And it wasn't just the amount of shots, he faced a lot of quality shots. He's unbelievable."

The Habs had mustered only 22 shots on net of their own that evening, and nothing makes an opponent more frustrated than being completely stonewalled by a guy who's standing on his head, losing despite having way more shots on goal.

"We make goalies feel unbelievable," Ovechkin said. "When we played Philadelphia (in 2008), (Flyers goal Martin) Biron was good. (New York Rangers goaltender Henrik) Lundqvist was good last year. And this year we make Halak feel good."

Yet Halak remained modest in the face of his success and new-found fame.

"After the game, the scrum around Halak was thick and persistent, with every reporter taking a stab at trying to get Jaro to give himself some credit for what was, in every way, a luminous performance," says Lu. "The problem is, Jaro is endearingly, frustratingly, and refreshingly humble. He's a true gentleman but will never fill a reporter's notebook."

Lu says he waited until the room had emptied about a bit before giving it one more try.

"As the scrum was thinning out, I made one last ditch effort to get a sound bite out of him and asked, 'Jaro, if you were on our side of the cameras and microphones, how would you sum up your performance tonight?'

"He paused, smiled, and said, 'Just another day at the office,'" Lu recalls. "He's as adept at understatement as he is at stopping pucks."

With the clear psychological edge, the Habs went on to win Game 7 by a score of 2-1. Riding on the back of their hot goaltender, the Habs had stormed back in unbelievable fashion and won three games in a row to move on to face Pittsburgh. In Games 5 through 7, No. 41 had stopped 131 of 134 shots he faced.

"Sometimes the goalies get in the zone where nothing is going to beat them," Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau said.

Thanks to Halak’s continued stellar play, Montreal would also go on to shock the Penguins in seven games. The dream would come to end in the Eastern Conference Final, though, as the Canadiens lost to the Flyers in five games.

Halak’s legendary performances and his ever-present humility cemented his status in the hearts of Canadiens fans everywhere.

But alas, the hockey world moves quickly. With two number one goalies in net, and both in need of new contracts, Halak was traded to the Blues and Price was anointed the team’s starting goaltender. The trade story on TSN.ca was one of the most commented-on items in the history of the website.

For fans it was a shocking turn of events. Just as quickly as they had fallen in love with him, he was gone. Months later, it was clear Habs fans hadn’t fully gotten over the trade. Halak recently returned to Montreal for an appearance and was greeted by thousands of fans and spent more than four hours signing autographs.

Was it the right move? Only time will tell. But there is no question that Jaroslav Halak was the catalyst for one of the most surprising and unforgettable playoff runs in recent NHL history.

Did the Habs make the right call in trading Halak away and sticking with Carey Price? Was Halak a "one-hit wonder" or does he have a long and successful career ahead of him? Let us know your thoughts in the Your!Call feature below.

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