Jaroslav Halak was a longshot draft pick in 2003, selected in the ninth and last round, 271st overall. But his solid play in 2005-06 in the ECHL and this season in the AHL made him an easy choice when Huet, Montreal’s No. 1 goaltender, went down in a game in New Jersey last week and was lost for the rest of the regular season.
Winning his NHL debut game 3-2 in Columbus on Sunday, which ended the Canadiens’ six-game losing streak, earned him another start Tuesday night against the Washington Capitals.
The more excitable of Montreal fans have already anointed the 21-year-old Halak a saviour, but coach Guy Carbonneau is not looking for miracles.
“The people want to put pressure on him, but I just want him to be good and give our team a chance to win,” Carbonneau said. “We want him to make the save when we need it. That doesn’t mean he has to get a shutout every game.”
In the first game after Huet’s injury, Halak watched from the bench as second goalie David Aebischer had a rough start in a 5-3 loss to Carolina, so the young Slovak got his chance to play.
He had already outplayed Yann Danis, his AHL teammate in Hamilton, to earn the call-up by leading the league in goals-against average at 2.00 and placing second in save percentage at .932, with six shutouts.
Danis was injured in a game Monday night against Syracuse and was replaced by Cedrick Desjardins, the goalie for the Memorial Cup champion Quebec Remparts last season who had been brought up from the ECHL.
If Danis needs to be replaced, Hamilton may have to call up Loic Lacasse, an overage junior playing for the Oshawa Generals. Carey Price, Montreal’s first-round pick in 2005, is not yet under contract.
So there may be even more pressure for Halak to do the job, although it doesn’t appear to faze him.
“I’ve got nothing to lose, so I’m just trying to focus on winning games and that’s it,” he said.
Halak has already raised eyebrows with his mask, which has a picture of former Canadiens goaltending great Patrick Roy with the Stanley Cup – a heavy load for player taking his first steps in the NHL.
He sees it as a tribute.
“When I was younger he was my favourite goalie, and he won the last Stanley Cup here, so that’s why I put him on my mask,” Halak said.
It doesn’t bother Carbonneau, the captain of that 1993 championship team that had Roy in goal.
“It’s just a mask,” he said. “It’s an idol.
“I had Jean Beliveau and Guy Lafleur. Maybe I didn’t have a chance to put them on my helmet, but I had pictures somewhere.”
At five foot 11, Halak looks smaller than average, but he is quick and he stands up in goal and to make himself bigger.
It has brought him a long way from that draft in Nashville, where he was almost overlooked.
“I was a little disappointed, but I got drafted and that’s the most important thing,” he said. “For a goalie, it doesn’t really matter what round you are picked in.
“Maybe if it’s the first round it’s good for you. But you have to work hard and show them that you’re better than that.”
In Montreal, he has Czech teammates Radek Bonk and Tomas Plekanec to show him the ropes and he has two Hamilton teammates also up with the NHL squad in Duncan Milroy and Maxim Lapierre.
“He’s a very calm goalie and he doesn’t get intimidated out there, which helps a lot, especially when you’re thrown into a situation like he is now,” said Milroy. “He showed last game in Columbus that he can play well if given the opportunity.”
Huet, the team’s top goalie, was injured while stretching for a goal by Brian Rafalski last week and had surgery on his torn hamstring on Sunday.
He expects to be gone at least for the rest of the regular season, although he hopes to be ready for the playoffs. It could have been worse had the tear been higher up on the hamstring.
“The doctors didn’t need to do much, just take fluids away and work on it a bit,” he said. “That was good news for me.
“It looked worse on the MRI.”
It is his second injury in as many seasons with Montreal. In 2005-06, Huet didn’t start to play until late November while recovering from surgery on a torn knee ligament, but then seized the No. 1 job from since-traded Jose Theodore.
He had another good half season before Christmas, but his play had slipped a notch before the hamstring popped.
There was more bad news Tuesday when centre Steve Begin turned up on crutches with a broken bone near the top of his right foot. Begin took a hard shot on the foot in Columbus.
The veteran checker had only returned Feb. 10 after missing 27 games with a back injury.
“It’s a tough season,” he said. “I was out for nine weeks, back for a few games and now out again for a few more weeks.
“It’s a broken bone. They will wait for the swelling to go down and take it from there.”
Montreal was already without winger Alex Kovalev for two to three weeks with a sore elbow. While defenceman Craig Rivet has resumed skating with the team, he is not expected back from a bout of pneumonia before Saturday.