The Montreal Canadiens have been eliminated from the playoffs on my birthday three times over the years in which I've been a fan of the team. I confess, I was fully expecting this year to become the fourth instance on that unhappy list. The Habs had fallen into a 3-1 deficit in their series against the mighty Capitals. They scraped out a 2-1 win in the fifth game, thanks to some stellar goaltending by Jaroslav Halak, but nobody thought they'd be able to do more than that. So on the day of Game Six, my birthday, I was pretty sure the Canadiens would end their season with yet another first-round elimination. It turned out Halak believed in himself and the team more than I did. He absorbed everything the Caps could throw at him, making an incredible 53 saves en route to a 4-1 triumph and a forced Game Seven. It was one hell of a birthday present. Afterwards, people who've been around for longer than I have said it was one of the best goaltending performances they'd seen, ever. It certainly was for me. I remember the legendary Patrick Roy OT against the Rangers in Game Three in 1986, and I thought Halak was as good as that.
When time passes, though, we tend to remember things differently. Saves get more miraculous, glove hands quicker and the number of shots more impossible as our memories soften the reality of what we witnessed. Sometimes, we go back to the video years later and what we recalled as being a brilliant performance was really kind of ordinary, with a few great saves thrown in. I wondered if it would be that way for Halak's Game Six miracle against Washington. Maybe, if we went back and looked at the tapes with an objective eye, it wouldn't really measure up to Roy or Dryden. Perhaps it was all a trick of perception; fans fooled by living so long without a miracle that even a minor miracle would seem spectacular.
As I wondered about that, and about how great Halak's playoff performance really was in the context of the great goalie performances Habs fans have witnessed over the years, I got an email from a reader. Michael Whitehouse is a stats guy, and he decided to look at the save percentages of Canadiens goalies in playoff series from 1986 to the present. The goalie had to have played at least three games in the series to be considered. Here's a chart of what he found, including save percentage and average number of shots faced per game:
That was intriguing enough to get Michael looking a bit farther into Habs history. He went back to 1971, to the amazing Ken Dryden performance in the playoffs that year. It turns out that in nearly forty years of Canadiens playoff goaltending, Jaro Halak is in the top five for save percentage in a series. Our perceptions are true and our memories aren't playing tricks on us. He really was that good.
Here's the link to Michael Whitehouse's chart documenting the goalie stats of every Canadiens playoff series since 1971. For those who have trouble deciphering the chart, Michael has concluded the top five performances for a Canadiens goalie in a playoff series since 1971 are as follows:
1. Steve Penney, 1984, Round 1 vs. Boston: .974 save percentage
2. Ken Dryden, 1976, Round 2 vs. Chicago: .973 save percentage
3. Ken Dryden, 1977, Round 2 vs. St. Louis: .962 save percentage
4. Patrick Roy, 1989, Round 3 vs. Philly: .940 save percentage
5. Jaroslav Halak, 2010, Round 1 vs. Washington: .939 save percentage
Maybe it'll turn out that Halak will be more Steve Penney than Ken Dryden when we look back at his career in twenty years. Or maybe he'll have a place among the greats by then. Either way, nothing can take away the fact that he played an incredible series against the Capitals and his name can be safely mentioned in the same breath as the best playoff performers in Habs history. In my memory, it'll be one of the best birthdays ever.