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Halak continues ascension to elite status with 45-save gem

The Canadian Press

4/16/2010 4:09:10 PM

WASHINGTON -- Montreal goaltender Jaroslav Halak has been converting the non-believers his entire career, and in the Canadiens' series opener with the Washington Capitals he added another disciple.

The Capitals hadn't faced Halak all season prior to Thursday night's 3-2 overtime loss to the Canadiens in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarter-final series, and defenceman Mike Green admits that may have been a factor in his team only getting two of 47 shots past him.

"We didn't know what to expect from him," Green said Friday after practice. "We hadn't faced him, we didn't know his habits and we didn't expect him to come out and play that well."

With what Halak has done all season, wrenching the starting job away from Carey Price and shining in the Olympics for the fourth-place Slovakian team, there was no reason for Green to expect anything other than excellence from the Canadiens goalie.

Thursday's game was the seventh time this year Halak has faced at least 45 shots, and he's won all seven. He finished fourth in the NHL with a .924 save percentage and ninth with a 2.40 goals against average, piling up a 26-13-5 record.

If there's one person who knows just when Halak is on his game, it's Price, who has taken his gradual demotion to back-up status with grace.

"He was on top of his paint, he was making himself big, he was tracking the puck well," Price said after taking part in an optional Canadiens practice. "It's what he's been doing well, and if he keeps doing that he's going to have a lot of success."

The relationship between Price and Halak has been an awkward one from the very start.

Halak was among the American Hockey League's top goaltenders in 2006-07 with the Hamilton Bulldogs, leading the league with a 2.00 GAA and coming second with a .932 save percentage.

But when Price's junior career with the Tri-City Americans came to an end he was brought in to Hamilton to play in the playoffs, while Halak was sent off to play for Slovakia in the world championships. Price would go on to lead the Bulldogs to the Calder Cup championship, while Halak played only two games at the world championships.

From that point onward, Price has been the heir apparent to the Canadiens goaltending throne, even though Halak has often outplayed him.

But this season it became clear after the return from the Olympic break that Halak was the Canadiens No. 1 goalie for the first time in his career, and he's taken that opportunity and ran with it.

Still, Price says Halak's temperament hasn't changed one iota in the face of his rapid rise to the upper echelons of the NHL's goaltending fraternity.

"It's just Jaro being Jaro, he's always been really quiet and kind of keeps to himself," Price said. "He's kind of a goalie, I guess."

The relationship between the two Canadiens netminders is cordial, even though both would like to have the net all to themselves. That situation could very well come to a head this summer as both Price and Halak are restricted free agents on July 1, and the Canadiens likely won't have enough money or playing time available to satisfy both.

"I kind of understand the situation and I do see a bigger picture," Price said of his backup role. "What I do now can lead to my next step, so all I can do is stay humble and keep working as hard as I can. When he's playing well it makes me want to play better, and when I'm playing well it makes him want to play better. That's just how it is. If you have that healthy relationship, it just pushes you to be better."

A big question mark for Halak coming into the series was that he had only one playoff start on his resume, so his performance Thursday night was doubly important because it seemingly answered that question.

Not so fast, says Canadiens coach Jacques Martin.

"I think he played extremely well (Thursday) night," Martin said. "But it's one game."

As he's done all season, Martin would not confirm Halak will start Game 2 on Saturday night, saying with a big smile that he'll decide in the morning.

But Green and the Capitals know Halak will be the one staring them down from the Canadiens net as they try to salvage a split at home. And this time, they'll also know what to expect from him.