Boy, is Jaro Halak getting crap for his last two starts! I've seen fans looking for his trade, his demotion to Hamilton and his head on a platter. I've even seen one person hope the banners in the rafters fall on his head and kill him, which I thought was both tasteless and more than slightly psychotic.
I agree Halak's play has been on the south side of stellar for the last couple of outings. I also agree he played a big role in the loss to Jersey (although one goal by the offence isn't going to win you too many either.) But he had little help on D in the stinkaroo against Florida, with two of the goals coming from behind screens provided by his own players. The Kovalev shorthanded giveaway for a Florida 1-on-Jaro wasn't exactly designed to make a goalie's life easier either. But I digress. I think there's a simple reason why Halak hasn't been doing all that well since Price's latest injury.
Halak is not a backup goalie. He's used to being number one wherever he's played; not sitting for weeks at a time and waiting for a chance to step in. It takes a whole different mindset in terms of confidence and preparation to be a good backup. Ideally, you want a guy who's a little older and has had natural ambition tempered by acceptance of his limitations. You want someone who is able to maintain his confidence even when he's not playing and find a groove within minutes instead of periods or games.
Halak is still very young and needs to play more to keep developing. He's liable to have his confidence take a hit when he sees Carey Price play game after game. And he shows rust when he's inserted after a week or two, or when Price is hurt. I think Halak is a much better goalie than we've seen in the last week. We saw him get better and better when he filled in for the injured Cristobal Huet two seasons ago, nearly dragging a slumping team into the playoffs. When he doesn't get the chance to be "the man," he has nothing to build on and must feel like he's starting from scratch and having to re-prove himself every time he gets a start. That has to be discouraging for a young goaltender who sees his future as following one of two paths: He either learns how to be a reliable backup, or he asks for a trade. Either way, his play has to improve with very few chances to show what he can do.
This is a difficult mental test for Halak. If he's going to improve his trade value or increase his current team's faith in him, he's got to learn to show confidence even when he doesn't really feel it. He's got to acquire an ability to focus like he's in a ten-game groove right from the first minute he's in there. And he's got to learn to shake off a bad goal and buckle down instead of going to pieces. That's a tall order for a 22-year-old goalie.
But you know what? I think Halak can do it. He's beaten the odds at every level of hockey he's played. He never should have even made the NHL, considering his low draft position and lack of hype. He knows what he's got to do, and so does Rollie Melanson. If he plays Wednesday against the Rangers, I think we'll see a calmer, more focussed Halak. It may have something to do with the fact that the team tends to play a different game against tough competition. But I think the goalie will have some say in what happens, in a good way.
I hope so. I always root for the underdog, and if it means Halak's improved play writes his ticket out of Montreal and a number one job elsewhere, well...that's hockey. I like the guy, and I want him to win games for the Habs while he's with them. And that means learning how to be a good backup...fast.