Halak Has Bounced Back And Defensive Play Of Late Has Been A Revelation

By Jeff Capellini

The mob formed at the gate armed with pitchforks and torches. It mattered little that it was just the eighth game of the season.

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The crowd wanted blood. They wanted Jaroslav Halak’s head on a stick.

As they saw it, the veteran goalie had the audacity to sign a four-year, $18 million contract with the Islanders during the offseason and then not win the Vezina Trophy in the season’s first month.

Shame on you, Jaro.

What most of the crazies didn’t realize is Halak is historically a very slow starter. In a career that has featured a 150-89-29 record in 282 regular-season appearances, October has always been his troubled time. The 29-year-old has a career .917 save percentage, but just .901 in the season’s first month, by far his worst of any month. His goals-against average over his eight-plus years in the league is 2.38, but in October? Yup, you guessed it — a career-worst 2.63.

Combine all that with him playing for a new team behind a defensive corps filled with young players still developing and veterans who were just getting to know the system, and it was possible Halak could post a few stinkers in the early going.

Which is exactly what he did on Oct. 21 against Toronto at home — a game in which he was pulled after two periods — and in a defeat a week later against Winnipeg, also at home. Halak stopped just 44 of 53 shots in those two games for a terrifyingly bad .830 save percentage. The Islanders had signed Halak to buck their recent trend of substandard goaltending, but the early return on their investment was painful to the eyes.

Halak’s vitals through his first six appearances were a frightening 3.50 GAA and .889 save percentage.

Making matters worse for Halak, the Isles won both games they played in between those two forgettable outings, but with Chad Johnson in net. Johnson, signed to a two-year deal in the offseason to be the backup, played very well in the 3-2 win at Boston, but was bailed out by his offense in the 7-5 victory over visiting Dallas two days later.

Head coach Jack Capuano went back to Halak for the matchup with the Jets, but the veteran netminder had trouble controlling his rebounds in the 4-3 defeat, a performance that had many in Isles Nation literally panicking, especially those massing at the border that separates Twitter from reality.

The one thing that everyone seemed to miss throughout the October adjustment period — or saga, depending on just how far out on the ledge you felt like going — was that the Islanders never fell to .500. Even with Halak stinking up the joint and Johnson hit-or-missing his way through his starts, the Isles left for a five-game road trip against Western Conference opponents with a 6-3 record off the strength of a 4-0 start.

It was perceived to be perhaps the worst 6-3 start in history, which shows you just how damaged this fan base had become thanks to the John Spano fraud era and the Charles Wang age of fiscal conservatism that have played huge roles in the Islanders winning exactly zero playoff series over the last 20 years.

So with a large percentage of the base losing its mind over goalie problems, Capuano went back to Johnson for the opener of the trip out in Colorado. The result was a 5-0 loss in which the Islanders played better than the score indicated. But that did little to convince a lot of people that a demoralizing swoon wasn’t on the horizon.

Before the third period ended there was literally a consensus among the fearful that the Isles would not only finish the road trip 0-5, but that another November disaster was a lock. There were intensified calls for Capuano’s head and bizarre excuse-making, my favorite being the absence of longtime whipping boy Josh Bailey as the reason for the Isles’ sudden — as in one game — struggle to score goals.

It was a joyous time, to say the least.

But then two things happened that not only changed the Isles’ early-season fortunes, but also firmly entrenched them as a threat in the Eastern Conference: They started playing defense and they stopped contributing to Halak’s problems by leaving him out to dry.

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Sure, like I illustrated above, the goalies struggled early on. But believe you me — the defense played a huge role in creating that mess. The problem last season was inexperienced defensemen, all-around poor team play in the defensive end and awful penalty-killing. All of those issues exacerbated a goaltending situation that wasn’t all that good to begin with due to the presence of over-the-hill Evgeni Nabokov and extremely in-over-their-heads youngsters Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson.

But with players like Travis Hamonic, Calvin de Haan and Thomas Hickey a year older, Lubomir Visnovsky finally healthy and the stunning preseason acquisitions of Stanley Cup winners Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy playing in front of proven veterans like Halak and Johnson, the belief was things would eventually get decidedly better.

And that’s exactly what has happened, perhaps even earlier than many figured.

The Islanders followed up their demoralizing defeat in Colorado with a 3-1 loss in San Jose, a game in which they probably deserved a better fate. The Sharks put the game away in the third with a pair of highlight-reel goals, and Halak finished with 28 saves.

Halak then started the opener of the back-to-back set in the Los Angeles area, beating the Ducks 3-2 in overtime before Johnson played out of his mind the next night in a 2-1 shootout victory over the Stanley Cup champion Kings.

At that point it felt like it didn’t matter who started the game in Arizona because the Isles were suddenly playing near-flawless defense, beating opponents to pucks, finishing checks and killing penalties. As a matter of paperwork, Halak stopped 19 shots in the 1-0 victory and the Isles complete a turnaround from potential disaster on their trip to six points in 10 games.

Throw in Tuesday night’s 6-0 payback destruction of Colorado at Nassau Coliseum and the Isles have won four in a row, outscoring their opponents 12-3. They are right behind Pittsburgh in the Metropolitan Division and have the look and feel of a team that knows it can do some things this season.

“At the beginning we were just scoring a lot of goals. We also gave up a lot of goals, so we just needed to get a little better, especially on the PK,” Halak said after making 20 saves Tuesday night.

The Islanders allowed 13 power-play goals in their first 35 man-down situations this season, but have since killed off 13 straight.

And, oh yeah, Halak’s vitals over his last four appearances? Try a 1.25 GAA and .952 save percentage.

“We’re just doing the right things on the ice. Everybody is on the same page, and that’s the key,” Halak said.

Despite having 10 wins in their first 15 games, the Islanders are probably not going to win two-thirds of their games this season, which would give them an astounding 54 by season’s end. But there’s no reason to believe they can’t challenge for an awful lot more than a playoff spot. They have turned all of their biggest problems on defense into strengths.

And I didn’t even mention their sudden love affair with secondary scoring. We’ll also see where that goes in the coming weeks.

All that said, it just might be time to put down your weapons and return to your homes. What do you think?

Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet

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