When the Boston Bruins stepped onto their team bus Saturday morning to head to the Scotiabank Arena for Game 3 of their first round series against the Carolina Hurricanes, they were greeted with the harsh reality that their starting goalie and Vezina Trophy finalist Tuukka Rask was headed back to Boston. Earlier in the morning, Rask informed Bruins General Manager Don Sweeney and President Cam Neely that he was opting out of the NHL Bubble and the Stanley Cup playoffs. That meant goalie Jaro Halak was the new starter for the Bruins going forward in this series that they now lead 2-1 after a 3-2 win in Game 3 Saturday afternoon.
Clairvoyant? Sixth sense? Intuition? Who knows, but when Boston Hockey Now decided to write and publish a story almost two weeks ago called “What if Jaroslav Halak”, who knew we’d be foretelling the future. Who knew a disinterested or distracted Rask would be flying the coop and Halak would become the Bruins main man between the pipes? But here we are. So rather than rehashing the entire story about Halak from the round-robin, here’s the cheater’s notes.
He’s 35-years-old. As a 25-year-old he put on one of the most scintillating goaltending performances of the last decade when his 8th seed Montreal Canadiens upset the top-seed Washington Capitals in the first round of the 2010 playoffs. That team made it to the Conference Finals and lost to Philadelphia. He had outperformed a kid named Carey Price for the gig that postseason.
Since that time, until Saturday afternoon, he had only played an additional 12 Stanley Cup playoff games in his career outside of 2010. He did lead Team Europe to the World Cup final in 2016 in this very same building in Toronto, with the tournament’s second-best netminding numbers. Mildly ironic, the Euro’s lost to Team Canada and Carey Price.
His captain Zdeno Chara was on Team Europe and is also his Slovakian countryman.
“We always had high confidence in both our goalies,” Chara said after the game. “That hasn’t changed. We all know the experiences that Jaro’ has in the playoffs, and he’s a proven goalie, that has done a number of times proven that he can handle this situation. So we, we always rely on both goalies during our seasons and that hasn’t changed.”
Which is nice. But what about finding out about your new starting job just a couple or a few hours before a pivotal playoff game. Carolina appeared to come out extra hard knowing they wanted to challenge the new goaltender. Brad Marchand took a quick penalty to help their cause. The Hurricanes fired four shots at Halak in the first two minutes on the power play, a couple of them legitimate scoring chances.
“Jaro, it’s not an easy task,” pointed out veteran Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron, “and he comes in and gives us a chance to win, makes some huge saves, especially early on, and helps keep us in the game.”
Halak definitely thought the quick start helped him. Making some saves heated him up, figuratively and literally.
“It’s really hot out there,” he said with a smile. “I have to say, today was, especially having those shots at the beginning, helped me get into the game. At the same time, it’s just really humid … but we’re all in the same situation.”
Halak was almost perfect. His only mistake came on a clearing attempt. Go right, go left, send it safely along the end boards? He stepped out and decided to saucer the puck up the middle. Canes forward Nino Niederreiter was there to pick it off and easily pop it into the vacated net. It cut the Bruins lead in half to 2-1 at 6:30 of the 3rd period.
“Mistakes happen, and we try to make the right play out there,” Halak explained. “I saw an opening and I tried to shoot it out and you know, the guy caught it. So, it ended up in our net. But we were still up, I may have given them a new life, but we responded the right way and we kept playing our game until the end and I have to give credit to our guys, guys coming into the line-up and playing hard, and that’s playoff hockey.”
Without a doubt, his teammates rallied for him. According to head coach Bruce Cassidy, Brad Marchand stood up on the bench and said “we’ve got this, let’s just keep playing our game. Not a problem.” Marchand was right. Boston created sustained pressure in the offensive zone and never strayed from their purpose to “pick-up” their goaltender who had made a mistake and to win the game. Mission accomplished.
Afterward, Cassidy mentioned how popular Halak was in the dressing room and echoed what Bruins General Manager Don Sweeney had said Saturday morning in announcing Rask’s departure.
“Jaro is a pro and I think over the last two years we’ve been a hockey club that’s relied on everybody and Jaro’s been a big part of that,” Sweeney announced. “You know we’ve split starts; we’ve rarely played players back-to-back. Jaro is mentally and physically ready to step in and assume the role and obviously we hope that he rises to the challenge.”
Step one complete. Now the focus has to remain on the task at hand, with absolutely no hard feelings to Rask. The Bruins all agreed that family comes first and now the hockey family must move on with focus.
“Obviously he’s a teammate and he’s a great guy,” Halak said in reference to his goaltending partner. “We support any decision and we are here as one team, as one family, and we understand what’s going on. Now we’ve gotta focus on hockey and today was an example that we just have to get out there and try to win a game.”
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