By Daniel Friedman
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Before he came to the Islanders, nobody ever questioned whether or not Jaroslav Halak was a good goaltender.
He had a solid resume and impressive career stats. He had shown a knack for stonewalling opponents, accentuated by his Patrick Roy-esque performance in the 2010 playoffs.
And yet, heading into this season – his seventh full one on the NHL circuit – questions still lingered. These concerns were not entirely unfounded; he had, at times, failed to come up big when the situation required it and he hadn’t quite reached that second or third gear since that aforementioned epic playoff performance.
The Washington Capitals became the third team (well, technically, the fourth) to decide that they were better off going in a different direction (Braden Holtby) between the pipes than sticking with Halak. The Buffalo Sabres never had any intention of keeping him – for them, it was all about the draft picks they’d get by dealing him away.
The St. Louis Blues had dumped Halak with the expectation that Ryan Miller would guard the net for the foreseeable future, which of course did not work out as they’d hoped. And you couldn’t necessarily blame the Montreal Canadiens for tabbing Carey Price as their man and deeming Halak expendable.
When Islanders general manager Garth Snow traded for the Slovakian puck-stopper and signed him to a four-year pact, it gave him a shot at redemption. This was Halak’s chance to be the undisputed No. 1 goaltender in an organization, an opportunity he simply never had up to this point. Even with the Blues, he had Elliott lurking as the “1A.” But now, he’s the guy.
Chad Johnson will never challenge him for the starting role, and any prospects that someday could are several years away.
Halak has rewarded the Isles for putting their faith in him; winning 23 of the 31 games he’s played this season. He currently sports a 2.22 goals-against average and .917 save percentage. He’s had four shutouts, has stolen multiple games and even broke Billy Smith’s franchise record for most-consecutive victories, racking up eleven wins in a row.
To top it all off, he was just named to his first All-Star Game – albeit in place of the injured Jimmy Howard. Still, it’s a well-deserved distinction. He becomes the first Islanders goalie to be so honored since Rick DiPietro in 2008.
“It’s obviously a big honor to go to the All-Star Game,” Halak said. “I’m really happy and I’m going to enjoy it, that’s for sure. I have a good record as a goalie, but you need the five guys in front of you to do the job to or else I wouldn’t be going there.”
It’s not a coincidence that Halak has become the franchise goaltender the Isles have been looking for since DiPietro (pre-Steve Begin collision). He’s taken the opportunity that’s been handed to him and has run with it.
“I’m just having fun, that’s all it is,” he said. “I’m not trying to think too much when I give up a bad goal or lose a game, I’m just trying to go out there and enjoy the moment.”
Needless to say, his method is working.
No disrespect to John Tavares and what he’s done for the team this season, but Halak is the Islanders’ MVP at this point. Without him, the Isles might not have been in a playoff spot, let alone first place in the Metropolitan Division.
That is not to say that, even with the additions up front and the acquisitions of Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy, the Isles wouldn’t have been an improved team had they not went out and gotten Halak. But without him, it might not have been enough. He’s the glue, the missing link, the key cog – insert whichever cliché you want.
Halak’s arrival has changed the way this team plays. When you have a net-minder who keeps you in hockey games, you feel more comfortable out on the ice. You’re seeing more freewheeling with the puck from the Islanders this season and it’s because they know there’s a goaltender behind them who’ll have their backs; they don’t have to play as conservatively.
Even in the third period, which has been this team’s Achilles heel, they’ve generally been turtling less than in recent years. Yes, it’s the result of a combination of factors, but Halak is a major one.
His latest masterpiece, a 27-save shutout over the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, was yet another example of what kind of impact he’s had this season.
As I said before, nobody ever questioned whether or not Halak was a good goaltender. However, not many believed him to be a franchise goaltender. Based on everything I’ve seen from the moment he first put on an Islander uniform, that’s precisely what he is.
Maybe Halak wasn’t good enough for the Habs, Blues or Capitals. But the Isles are beyond thrilled that those teams let him go.
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