Halak relishes chance to be The Man for Slovakia

Slovakia goalie Jaroslav Halak is excited for the Sochi experience. He welcomes chance to face a barrage of shots and backstop an underdog nation.

Four years isn’t an eternity, but gosh, 
a lot has changed in Jaroslav Halak’s life since 2010.

Halak started that calendar year as a backup goaltender. By the summer, he was a folk hero on two teams in two countries. At the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, he backstopped the underdog Slovakians to wins over Russia and Sweden and almost led them to a heart-stopping comeback against Canada in the semifinal. Then came the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs. Stealing the Canadiens starting job from Carey Price, Halak gave a stunning performance, posting a .923 save percentage as Montreal upset Alex Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals and Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins on a Cinderella run to the Eastern Conference final.

Halak was The Man, an exciting goalie in a big market, snatching headlines and known to enjoy speedy sports cars off the ice.

That summer, however, Montreal decided Price was its long-term answer and traded Halak to St. Louis. Ken Hitchcock took over as Blues coach a year later and settled Halak into a tandem with Brian Elliott. Halak now goes about his business in a smaller market on a team that allows the second-fewest shots. He and wife Petra had their first child, a girl named Inna, in the summer and he’s a changed man, even behind the wheel.

“I still love the cars, but now that I have a daughter, the priority has changed a little bit,” he says.

Does that mean he’s swapping V8s for minivans?

“No,” he says with a hearty laugh. “I mean I’m driving safely.”

Big-market hockey fans may say he’s faded into obscurity, but it’s more appropriate to say Halak, 28, has grown into maturity. That includes the way he and Elliott have settled into their 1 and 1A roles. (Halak has started 98 games in three seasons under this arrangement. Elliott has started 76 and Jake Allen the other 13 as an injury replacement). They respect the hot-hand system and lobby for playing time through performance.

“When one plays well, we know we’re going to get a good game out of the other the next night, usually,” says Blues goaltending coach Corey Hirsch. “They’re competitive with each other. And we’ve had zero issues off the ice with those two.”

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Nevertheless, any goalie wants to play and play often. Halak gets to do just that as Slovakia’s starter in Sochi and the timing couldn’t be better for a pending unrestricted free agent hoping to up his value.

“I don’t know what it’s going to be like, but I know we’ll face really good teams, so I’ll probably face way more shots,” Halak says. “It’s a challenge. And any challenge will be fun.”

It’s a good thing Halak is comfortable with being peppered, because he will be. Slovakia’s Group of Death neighbors include Russia and Team USA. Hirsch sees the heavy workload as a positive for a goalie such as Halak.

“It’s actually a more difficult game when you get less shots, because it’s typically the same amount of scoring chances, but you’re not getting that feel of the puck as much,” Hirsch says. “It’s hard to watch the goalie at other end make 40 saves while you’re battling to make one or two.”

If there’s a chink in Halak’s armor, it’s inconsistency. His save percentages from November to January were .914, .885 and .939. But being The Man for Slovakia will help his focus. Underdog or not, he has a gold-or-bust mentality.

“If it’s us or the U.S. or Russia, anybody wants to be on top,” he says. “We have to approach it with determination and play the hardest every game. In this short tournament, after the group stage, it’s all about winning only one game.”

This feature originally appeared in the Feb. 17 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.

Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the Post-To-Post blogFor more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazineFollow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin