Halak Isn't A Savior, But He's Light Years Better Than What This Club Is Used To

By Daniel Friedman
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From the moment he first skated onto the Nassau Coliseum ice, Jaroslav Halak changed the atmosphere at Islanders training camp.

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Not because of the veteran goaltender’s reaction time during a 2-on-1 drill, nor because of anything pertaining to his performance, for that matter. His mere presence drove home the realization that things were going to be different this season.

“They have a young team and a great group of guys over here,” Halak said. “They are only going to get better. I was glad that they traded for me and showed good interest in me. I’m happy to be here and thrilled about training camp and the start of the season.”

Last year was a huge disappointment, one the Islanders are eager to put behind them. They’re hungry to prove that it was a fluke, that their playoff run the prior spring is a more accurate representation of their potential.

John Tavares summed it up pretty clearly.

“You play to win and you play to win the Stanley Cup,” Tavares said. “That’s been our goal, for a lot of us since we were kids to have that opportunity. After a great year we had during the lockout season we were really disappointed with it last year. This is a big year for us in a lot of ways. You can see Garth (Snow) and management really trying to find that solution to get us into the playoffs and consistently have that. The pressure is great. You have to enjoy it. It just means there’s a great opportunity ahead of you.”

There are no more excuses, no more “rebuild” references: The Islanders are going for it, and Halak is the poster boy of the operation.

Why? Because he represents the cure for what has long been plaguing this team – subpar goaltending. He’s a legitimate No. 1 keeper in this league, something the Isles haven’t had since pre-Steve Begin collision Rick DiPietro.

“He’s a number one guy and can play those big minutes,” defenseman Travis Hamonic said. “He’s certainly a great goaltender. For me it’s just being confident in a guy and being confident in front of him. You’d be hard pressed to find someone in the organization that’s not excited about our goalie position right now.”

And so, the pressure is on Halak to be what recent Isles’ goalies couldn’t. He’s inheriting a role that has been so poorly executed by those who’ve preceded him, which means the fans will have little patience for any hiccups. It’s not necessarily fair, but one can certainly understand why the frustration level is so high.

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Halak’s resume is impressive. He put up good numbers in St. Louis and Montreal, and was a major factor in the Habs’ run to the Eastern Conference finals in 2010. We know he’s a talented goaltender who keeps his teams in games.

Can he handle the pressure he’ll undoubtedly face on Long Island? His tenure in Montreal would suggest that he can, but that was four years ago. Halak went to the playoffs with the Blues, but that wasn’t the same. Additionally, the defense in front of him won’t be nearly as impenetrable as it was in St. Louis.

Depending on whom you ask, Halak is elite, very good, just plain good or overrated. But when the puck drops on Oct. 10, Islander fans will judge him in one of two ways: either he can get the job done, or he can’t. Lately, they’ve seen too many who can’t.

Of course, the Slovakian netminder isn’t the only one under the microscope here. Tavares is the face of the franchise, but his impact is more of a given, a constant if you will. You always knew what you were getting from Tavares. The fact of the matter is that, if the Isles aren’t still playing in late April, it won’t be the captain’s fault.

It won’t necessarily be Halak’s fault, either. That said, reality and perception are two very different things. The fans will be quick to blame him because he’s supposed to be the missing link, which means it’s on him to live up to that hype.

For a change, there are no questions surrounding the goaltending at training camp. There are no controversies or particularly intriguing storylines — a welcome change of pace that tells you everything you need to know about where the Islanders stand and how far they’ve come.

For a change, there are expectations.

Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter at @DFriedmanOnNYI

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