Spotlight on Jaroslav Halak
As a fan of the Montreal Canadiens, I feel compelled to cheer for any Habs that were lucky enough to be selected by their countries of origin to compete at the Vancouver Games. Following this group of players, both for this website and as a mega-fan, you can't help but feel a bond with each and every one of them - even if they might frustrate the Hell out of you on the ice a lot of the time.
Now, with all but one Hab eliminated from medal contention at the Games, the spotlights falls unto one player, and a very important player to the Canadiens and their fans. Tonight, Jaroslav Halak will have the attention of the world, as he leads Team Slovakia against the hometown boys of Team Canada.
To say that the odds are stacked against him is an understatement. While Slovakia has an incredibly strong core of players, their line-up only boasts 9 NHL skaters, which brings into question the quality of the other 9, mostly used to the open-ice game of the KHL and other European leagues. Compare this to Canada's stacked NHL All-Star line-up and any fan of Slovakia has to cringe. Canada's highly offensive style means that Halak will have to face a lot of shots, and with his performances up-and-down over the course of the tournament, anything less than a stellar performance means that he and his team will be dead in the water.
While things look grim for Slovakia, they can take solace in the fact that their star players really do match up with those of Canada. Zdeno Chara is as good as any defenseman on team Canada. Marian Gaborik is only out-scored by Canada's Sidney Crosby and Patrick Marleau this season in the NHL, and he doesn't have Evgeni Malkin or Joe Thornton to play with on the Rangers. Marian Hossa is one of the best 2-way players in the game. Add to this group of spectacular players some good NHL defensemen (Jurcina, Meszaros, Sekera and Visnovsky), and some capable NHL forwards (Demitra, Handzus, Kopecky, Satan), and some former NHLers (Marcel Hossa, Josef Stumpel, Richard Zednik) and this might make for a closer game than most would anticipate.
But despite all those players, Slovakia's success or failure tonight will be defined by the performance of Jaroslav Halak, just like Evgeni Nabokov's performance on Wednesday night defined Russia's failure, and just like Ryan Miller has defined every victory for team USA before tonight. Chara can do his think, so can Gaborik, Hossa and Demitra, but if Halak can't stop the likes of Crosby, Heatley, Iginla and Nash, Slovakia will find themselves playing in a Bronze medal game faster than they can say their own names.
To say that this is the most important game of Halak's young career would be an understatement. The 24 year old has many years ahead of him as an NHL goaltender, and while he's been solid in almost every game he's played so far in his career, he's never really had the chance to prove himself in a game of such high importance.
On the line tonight are not only Slovakia's guaranteed spot on the podium on Sunday afternoon at Canada Hockey Place, but his status as a Montreal Canadien. Habs fans will tell you that there's no way Pierre Gauthier can trade Halak at this point, but you can't be so sure. Halak's value will be at an all-time high after the end of these games. While the Slovakian is a restricted free agent at season's end, he makes only $800,000 in salary, and would look VERY attractive to teams looking to add a goaltender down the stretch. And while I will not speculate on what kind of deals could be on the table for Mr. Gauthier before March 3rd, you can bet that if he is at all sane, he will take every offer seriously.
The Canadiens still have another young goaltender with tremendous amounts of potential, and while his season has been the polar opposite of Halak's, it would be insanity to give up on 22 year old Carey Price before he even gets his own true chance. And with Halak's value at an all-time high after an incredible season in the NHL, and and even more incredible Olympic Tournament in Vancouver, you have to wonder whether the offers will be pouring in for Price, or whether they will be pouring in for Halak, in the week leading up to next week's trade deadline.
Whatever may be the case, Halak will be taking it one game at a time. And tonight, you can bet that thoughts of whether he'll be traded, or whether he'll start the Habs' first game back on March 2nd, or whether or not he'll re-sign with the Canadiens in the Summer will be far, far, far away from his mind.
Tonight, as mentioned, is the biggest challenge of his career. With everything on the line, he enters the arena with the weight of an entire country's hockey aspirations on his shoulders, and will need to deliver the strongest performance of his young career to that effect. Can he deliver on the grandest stage of them all? Tune in tonight to find out.
Some Habs who weren't so lucky to represent their countries at the games sounded off when asked whether they would be cheering for Canada or their teammate. Thanks to Herb Zurkowsky at Habs Inside/Out for the quotes:
Matt D'Agostini: "A 1-0 win for Canada. They get 65 shots against him and Jaro's the first star in a perfect world. "
Josh Gorges: "I want (Halak) to have a strong game and play well. But I'm Canadian. A 1-0 game would be nice and have him play well. But it's tough. I've got a lot of close friends on Canada."
And finally, Carey Price, in a quote that will certainly be misconstrued and turned into another round of the 2009-2010 Montreal Canadiens goaltender controversy: "Actually, it's Canada against Slovakia. I've got to take Canada. I'm Canadian. But I hope he does well."
Finally, if you read French, here's an excellent article by Francois Gagnon, where Halak admits that tonight will be the biggest challenge of his career.
Enjoy the game tonight!