Quite simply, the Montreal Canadiens should not still be in the NHL playoffs. They limped into the playoffs, barely securing the last spot in the weak Eastern Conference. Virtually no one gave them any chance against the Washington Capitals - the best offensive team in the league by a wide margin. I thought that the Habs would be lucky to win a single game.
It looked like I was going to be right after the Canadiens fell behind 3-1 and had to play Game 5 in Washington. Somehow, though, they won three straight to clinch that series. If Washington's Alexander Ovechkin isn't the best player in the world then Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby is, and he was included in the second round competition for Montreal. The Habs didn't miss a step, taking the home ice advantage over in the series in the first game, and fought tough in the next two. Montreal is down, but they are far from out.
So, how are they doing it? Just one guy - Jaroslav Halak. Their goalie has been superhuman. Montreal faced some real goaltending uncertainty coming into this season - it was unclear whether Halak or Carey Price was going to be ready to step up and be a legitimate No. 1. Halak was solid leading up to the Olympic break, and gained a small edge on Price. At the Olympics, though, he really stepped into the spotlight. Playing for Slovakia, he was absolutely incredible against the Russians - featuring Ovechkin and Washington's Alexander Semin - in the preliminary round to secure the upset. He led the team all the way to the bronze medal game and a fourth-place finish. The confidence he gained in Vancouver has carried over into the playoffs. Halak has been incredible.
The Habs have a history of seeing goaltenders step up and stand on their heads in the playoffs. Patrick Roy did it. So did Ken Dryden. Steve Penney went from being the third goalie on the far team to the star that led the Canadiens through two rounds of the playoffs and almost past the New York Islanders in 1984. There is a mystique surrounding the Canadiens like few others in sports, and it seems to draw the best out of goalies when it matters. Halak is the latest to answer that call.
What's most remarkable about the way Halak has played in these playoffs has been his ability to shake off poor performances. In Game 2 against Washington he allowed six goals. In Game 3 he allowed three goals in 28 minutes before being yanked. In Game 4 he rode the bench while Price gave it a try. A lot of players would have had their confidence completely shattered by that string of events. Not Halak. He came back in Game 5 and was beyond mortal, making 37 saves on 38 shots. He was even better in the next game, stopping 53 of 54. To complete the hat trick he saved 41 of 42 in the clinching game. The number of times that a goalie has faced 134 shots in three consecutive playoffs games - and won all three - can be counted on one hand. Halak was the singular hero.
He wasn't done, though. In the first game against Pittsburgh he allowed five goals in 45 minutes before earning a vacation for the closing minutes of the loss. He allowed just two goals in the next two games, while making 61 saves. A short memory is crucial for goalies, and Halak's seems to be as short as we have seen.
Halak has had his team on his shoulders for weeks now. The obvious question, and the crucial one if the team hopes to have any chance for survival, is whether he can keep it up. It's a complex question, but it's hard to doubt him. He has already beaten the best offensive team in the league, and shown that he isn't scared of perhaps the second most dangerous, so it can't get any harder from here.
You could argue that his defensive unit may struggle to keep up with opponents as the playoffs progress, but that's far from a concern because it's obvious given the number of shots he has faced that the defense hasn't been at their best up to this point. There is no looming threat that makes it clear that he can't keep doing what he is doing. Several times we have seen a goalie get dialed in an stay that way for four rounds.
Despite that optimism there are two good reasons for concern. First, his counterpart, Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury, is a guy who has plenty of experience stepping up and carrying his team when they aren't at their best. He's led his team to the Stanley Cup Finals two years in a row, with a win last year, so he obviously knows what it takes. He has only been okay in much of the playoffs, but he stole his first game of these playoffs with a couple of ridiculous saves in game three at Montreal. He's only going to get better as the stakes get higher, and he has many more tools in front of him than Halak has. If Fleury settles into a groove then it may not matter how good Halak is.
There's also the issue of Halak's durability. We've seen several Olympic goalies struggle after the tournament. Roberto Luongo wasn't nearly as sharp as he could be down the stretch. Ryan Miller and Martin Brodeur went out with a whimper in the first round. Evgeni Nabokov is playing well now, but was weak down the stretch.
Halak played against top competition in Vancouver, played all but five games down the stretch, and then has played nine playoff games. There's a very good chance that he is worn out - especially given the amount of rubber he has faced. Halak has played 45 regular season games this year plus the Olympics and playoffs. Last year he played just 34 games, and just 14 the year before that. This is the most action he has ever seen in a year, and it only gets tougher from here. We have no way of knowing how he will hold up to that, though we certainly have to be cautious.