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Where does Halak's 53-save effort rank among Habs' greats?

Matt Burt, TSN.ca

4/27/2010 5:19:06 PM

There are arguably few jobs in sport more stressful and pressure-filled than being starting goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens.

On Monday night at the Bell Centre, Jaroslav Halak fit the job description perfectly. Halak made 53 stops against the Washington Capitals to extend their first-round playoff series to an unlikely seventh game, sending La Belle Province into hysterics.

Despite being outshot 54-22, the Canadiens pulled out the 4-1 victory in front of a raucous sold-out crowd at the Bell Centre and, while hockey may be a team game, the Canadiens knew they pretty much had one man to thank.

"We got two early goals, we wanted to get the lead, and then (Halak) shut the door," said forward Brian Gionta. "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."

In the Habs' biggest game of the year thus far, Halak stonewalled Alexander Ovechkin and Co. - a team that put up a league-leading 318 goals in the regular season. If Halak was already considered the definitive No. 1 guy in Montreal, then shutting down the most potent offensive juggernaut in the National Hockey League was just the icing on the cake.

While 53 saves is no doubt an impressive feat, a little perspective never hurts.

Halak's performance was hardly a record-breaker. That mark of 53 saves is tied for 33rd for the most saves in a playoff game since 1983.

Furthermore, Halak's tally is only the tenth highest in a playoff game since the end of the NHL lockout.

Perhaps the most noteworthy item is that this was a Game 6 - and there is still more hockey to be played.

But considering the do-or-die stakes involved in this particular game and the perceived talent gap between the two teams heading into the series, the Slovak's performance is certainly worthy of note, particularly within the confines of the mythical netminding history of the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge.

If you haven't heard, the Canadiens have been known to have a few decent keepers between the pipes over the years. So where does this game rank in the fabled post-expansion history of Canadiens goaltenders?

It's up there, but is it the best?

In a 2-1 overtime win on Apr. 25, 1994, Patrick Roy made 60 saves against the Boston Bruins in Game 5 of their first-round series, the most ever by a Habs goalie in a postseason game. Even more impressive was that Roy was suffering from acute appendicitis and taking antibiotics that night.

Also noteworthy from Roy's resume was his performance in Game 3 of the Wales Conference Final against the New York Rangers in 1986. Roy stopped 13 shots in overtime against the Blueshirts before Claude Lemieux scored the winner on the Habs' first shot.

Then there's Jose Theodore, who stopped 56 shots against the New Jersey Devils in his NHL playoff debut at the tender age of 20 back on April 24, 1997. That mark of 56 stops had previously been set by one Ken Dryden back on May 4, 1971 in Chicago against the Blackhawks (a 2-1 loss in OT).

Keep in mind, this is a discussion about the greatest single-game playoff performances by Montreal Canadiens goaltenders. While Halak obviously has a lot of work to do to be compared with a Roy or a Dryden over the long-term, his display on Monday night certainly ranks in the vicinity of the best one-off playoff games by those two big names.

In Halak's case, it seems that - almost as a rule - he excels when he's tested often during a game. Over his career, Halak is 12-2-1 when facing 40 shots or more.

"Obviously it's great feeling, especially in the playoffs, winning a game like that," Halak said after the game. "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 magnitude of No. 41's dazzling display wasn't lost on his teammates.

"Huge saves," Gionta said. "Big, big time saves."

Nor did it go over the heads of the media.

"It has to be one of the better (performances) I've seen," said Pat Hickey, veteran Canadiens beat writer for the Montreal Gazette. "The fact is that it wasn't a Cup-winning performance, but it was a staving-off-elimination performance, keeping them alive. So it was probably in the top ten of the great goaltending performances in the playoffs."

As strange as it sounds, with Halak's best performances coming on busy nights, the team could be thinking about letting him see more shots again on Wednesday night and squeaking out another goalie-based victory.

On Monday, Ovechkin and his teammates were stumped all night (save for one tally in the third period), and No. 8 for the Caps seems to have picked up on a pattern in that department.

"We make goalies feel unbelievable," he said. "When we played Philadelphia (in 2008), (Martin) Biron was good. (Rangers goalie Henrik) Lundqvist was good last year. And this year we make Halak feel good.

"It's disappointing, but we'll find a way to break that and win. No panic. Nothing."

Considering the Habs were longshots at best heading into this series (the NHL on TSN panel called a Caps win in five games), they must be pretty enthused to be heading back to Washington deadlocked at three games apiece.

Of course, people likely won't remember an impressive performance in Game 6 unless that team goes on to win Game 7.

If the Canadiens go out and get cleaned 6-0 in the deciding match, Halak's most recent performance - while still impressive as a singular achievement - will have been for naught, and is less likely to go down in history as a memorable accomplishment.

"It depends on how far this team goes," said Hickey, who has covered the Habs for almost four decades. "If they lose (Wednesday) night, it will probably be forgotten pretty quickly.

"If they go far - if they get to the finals, for example - people will remember this game as the game that kept them alive and the turning point in the series."

If the Habs do manage to pull off the biggest upset of the postseason, it could be one of the most storied accomplishments in recent team history (despite the fact that it's only a first-round series). It's no minor achievement being a No. 8 seed knocking off a No. 1 (and a favourite to win the Stanley Cup at that).

The Habs have already transformed from potential first-round fodder into a team that has, at the very least, made this a compelling series. If they can close the deal on Wednesday night, it's a whole new game.

Where do you think Jaroslav Halak's Game 6 performance ranks among single-game playoff efforts from other Montreal netminders in the post-expansion era? Let the hockey world know with our Your! Call feature below.