In today’s frozen memory, I’ll detail one of the most impressive goaltending performances I’ve ever seen. We’ve already seen the work of J.S. Giguere earlier in our series, and this performance is right up there. This is the story of how the Washington Capitals met their worst nightmare – Montreal goalie, Jaroslav Halak.
The 2010 NHL season was a phenomenal season for the Washington Capitals. The Capitals went 54-15-13 in the regular season, good for 121 points. The 121 points were the 2nd highest total post lockout behind only the 2005-2006 Detroit Red Wings. The Capitals though had plans to go much farther than those 05-06 Wings, who were upset in the first round by the #8 Oilers. These Caps had the #1 offense, led by Alex Ovechkin (50 goals, 109 points) and Nicklas Backstrom (33 goals, 101 points). They had the #1 powerplay in the league at 25.24%, which was almost 4% better than the 2nd best team. They were a true offensive juggernaut and at the beginning of the postseason, many felt that they were the favorites to win the Cup. Their first round matchup was against the #8 seed Montreal Canadiens.
The Canadiens were in a bit of a turmoil that season. The Canadiens went just 39-33-10 for 88 points, the lowest total of any playoff team. In fact, the 88 points ranked just 20th overall that season. Their goaltender of the future, Carey Price, had struggled mightily, going 13-20-5 with a 2.77 GAA and a .912 SV%. Their backup goalie, Jaroslav Halak had faired much better, going 26-13-5 with a 2.40 GAA and a .924 SV% but he never got to face the Capitals in the regular season. That didn’t matter to coach Jacques Martin who tabbed Halak the starter against the vaunted Capitals offense.
Through 4 games it looked like a mistake. After stealing Game 1 with a 45 save effort, Halak gave up 17 goals in Games 2-4, all Capitals victories. Even worse, he let Alex Ovechkin get going. Ovechkin was held without a shot in Game 1, but recorded 4 goals and 4 assists over the next 3 games to put the Caps up 3 games to 1 heading back to Washington. Ovechkin was feeling so good that after Game 2, he took the time to make fun of Halak, saying that the netminder was nervous as his hand was shaking while he was squeezing his water bottle. The closeout was inevitable…so they thought. Everyone thought that except for Jaroslav Halak.
Halak had been pretty bad through the first 3 games. He had posted an atrocious 4.07 GAA and .886 SV% in Games 1-3 and was so bad that Carey Price got the start in Game 4. Price proceeded to give up 4 goals on 36 shots in a 6-3 loss, leaving coach Jacques Martin with a difficult decision for Game 5 – which goalie was going to get it done?
Martin decided to go with Halak for Game 5 and hoped he would work. Halak responded with a magnificent performance, stopping 37 of the 38 shots he faced, many of them being miraculous. Halak, now bolstered by the confidence his coach gave him and by his performance, decided to fire back at Ovechkin, saying, “Same thing I did tonight, I was squeezing the bottle the same way”. Suddenly, this was a 3-2 series heading back to Montreal and the Canadiens had new life.
In Game 6, Halak turned in one of the best performances by a goaltender in playoff history, stopping 53 of 54 shots faced, including 21 saves in the 3rd period alone. To give you a full perspective on this game, the 21 saves Halak made in the 3rd period equaled the total number of shots faced by the Caps netminder Semyon Varlamov. Halak particularly enjoyed denying Alex Ovechkin (8 shots) and Alexander Semin (7 shots). After the game, Caps defenseman Joe Corvo (10 shots on goal) said, “The dam’s going to break. He can’t save 60 shots again, so we’ll just put as many shots on him as we can and see what happens”. I think Halak may have taken that as a challenge.
Game 7 was back in Washington, and the Capitals came out with a fury. The Caps fired 11 shots on Halak in the first period, but they simply could not beat him. In the 2nd they fired another 13, but still no goals. Through 2 periods, the Capitals had outshot the Habs 24-11, but were down 1-0, thanks to Halak’s spectacular saves. Finally in the 3rd, the Capitals unleashed an all out assault, firing 18 shots on Halak. Unfortunately, just one shot beat him, and it came a little too late with just 2:16 remaining and the Habs up 2-0.
Over the final three games, Halak stopped 131 of 134 shots (.978 SV%). He held the Capitals to just 1 goal in each of the final three games. Prior to that, in the Capitals previous 86 games, they had only been held to 1 goal or less just 3 times. Over the final 3 games, the Capitals outshot the Canadiens 134 to 66, but the Canadiens outscored the Caps 8-3. This was just sheer brilliance. Halak made some absolutely phenomenal stops, just shattering the will of the Capitals. That three game stretch is one of the most impressive 3 game stretches I’ve ever seen and I’ll never forget Halak. To this day, I still think he haunts Alexander Ovechkin’s dreams as the Caps’ worst nightmare.