BROSSARD, Que. – Even riding a two-game shutout streak, Jaroslav Halak does not assume he will be the starting goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens.
The 24-year-old was named the NHL first star of the week on Monday after winning 1-0 at Philadelphia on Friday and 3-0 at home over Buffalo a night later.
He is all but certain to be in goal again when the Canadiens try to take another step toward clinching a playoff spot against the Islanders in New York on Tuesday night.
But Halak won’t take that for granted, publicly at least. Perhaps that is because coach Jacques Martin’s policy is to name his starter only on the day of a game, or that Halak has seen highly touted Carey Price get favoured treatment too often in the past.
“This is not in my control,” said Halak, whose shutout string now spans 144 minutes 41 seconds – back to a second-period goal by New Jersey’s Dainius Zubrus on March 27. “If I get a chance to play, I’ll try to do my best.
“Lately, if you lose a game you don’t play, so we’ll see what happens.”
Both goaltenders have been sharp of late, but the 22-year-old Price lost his last outing 2-1 to Carolina despite 33 saves and had the team collapse in front of him in the final two minutes against Buffalo in the start before that.
Price, the fifth overall pick in the 2005 draft who has been tabbed for stardom since he joined the Canadiens in 2007, is only 13-20-5 this season despite a strong .912 save percentage.
Meanwhile, Halak is 26-12-3 with a 2.31 goals-against average and .927 save percentage, third-best in the NHL.
It will be up to general manager Pierre Gauthier to decide whether to keep both Halak and Price, or trade one of them, when both become restricted free agents on July 1.
It’s a tough call between Price, whose quickness and six-foot-three frame suggest huge potential even if he sometimes appears to lose focus, and the five-foot-11 Halak, who is quietly efficient, covering his angles and letting in few bad goals. Halak was picked 271st overall in the 2003 draft.
But for now, Halak has the upper hand and should be Montreal’s starter if they make the playoffs, which is highly likely. A Canadiens win combined with a New York Rangers loss on Tuesday night would clinch it.
Last season, Halak was probably the stronger goalie down the stretch, but it was Price who got the starts in the post-season. That was under the since-departed Bob Gainey as coach and general manager. Martin has taken a clean-slate approach, giving both their chances and going with the one who wins games.
“The competition between him and Carey has brought out the best in both of them,” said Martin. “In Jaro’s case, we’ve seen progress this year and the biggest growth has probably been in his mental toughness.
“It’s important for them to understand that nothing is given. They have to earn what they get. Both went through those stages this year. I remember in November, Jaro had to work for what he got. He did and it paid off. Carey as well.”
Halak is 9-2-1 since he helped surprising Slovakia to fourth place at the 2010 Olympic in Vancouver.
A number of teams would like to have the Canadiens goaltending – Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago, to name three – although Montreal probably lacks the scoring punch from their undersized top lines to be a serious Stanley Cup contender.
“It’s a debate that is for you (reporters) and the fans,” said forward Mike Cammalleri. “In our room, we’re extremely happy to have two solid goaltenders that we have a lot of confidence in.
“I’ve been in situations where we haven’t had confidence in one guy, let alone two guys that you love having in. So it’s really nice to have.”
The Canadiens can eliminate the Islanders from the playoffs with a win. They then close out the regular season in Carolina, which is already out, and at home on Saturday against the Eastern Conference cellar-dwelling Toronto Maple Leafs.
Defenceman Jaroslav Spacek, who missed two games with a flu, was back skating. Martin will decide Tuesday whether he will play.
The Canadiens record of four straight shutouts and 343 minutes five seconds without allowing a goal was set by George Hainsworth in 1929.