MONTREAL – Those who thought the debate over who should be playing goal in Montreal ended when veteran Cristobal Huet was traded were sadly mistaken.
Jaroslav Halak, called up when Huet was dealt to Washington at the Feb. 26 NHL trading deadline, is giving the heir apparent Carey Price a battle for the starting job with his strong play in the Canadiens net.
After shutting out the New York Islanders in a 3-0 win on Saturday night, Halak will be back in goal when the Canadiens face the St.Louis Blues on Tuesday night at the Bell Centre.
“I think he deserves to play again,” coach Guy Carbonneau said Monday. “He played a really good game after going through a tough time.
“He was impatient to play after not having played for a while and I thought he was solid.”
Carbonneau may simply be playing the odds. Halak, 22, is a perfect 8-0 at the Bell Centre since last season, when he went 10-6-0 after a late-season call-up, including 7-0 at home.
He has won both of his starts since he was recalled this season, allowing only two goals in total. Including brief appearances in two other games earlier this season, Halak sports a dandy 1.13 goals-against average and a .965 save percentage.
“I don’t know why I’m winning here all the time, but hopefully I can keep going like that,” the Bratislava native said. “I didn’t expect to play, but I’m happy to get two starts in a row.
“When someone is a No. 2 goalie he wants to be No. 1, so he obviously tries to battle,” he added. “That’s what I’m doing now and we’ll see what happens.”
It isn’t that Price has been bad. The 20-year-old tabbed as the Canadiens goaltender of the future is 5-3-0 since the Huet trade, including a 38-save shutout win over the New Jersey Devils on March 11.
But Halak’s 30-save effort against the Islanders couldn’t be ignored, even by Price.
“I figured he would play,” Price said. “He played a perfect game.”
Many of the fans and media were shocked when general manager Bob Gainey dealt Huet to the Capitals for a 2009 second round draft pick, leaving the net to a pair of youngsters just as the Canadiens were entering the stretch drive to the playoffs.
Gainey said the move was intended to make room for Halak, the top goaltender in the AHL at the time with Hamilton. Mostly, it showed supreme confidence in Price, the fifth overall draft pick of 2005 who took Hamilton to an AHL championship last spring.
But while it looked as though the starting job was being handed to Price, Halak’s performance so far suggests that may still need to be decided. Carbonneau said he’s happy to have two goalies who can do the job.
“You still look for a No. 1 at some point, but I’ve been here two years and we’ve used two goalies all the time,” Carbonneau said. “The future will tell us what we have.
“I always say you need two good goalies. If you have Martin Brodeur who can play 76 or 77 games a year, then it’s easier. But if you have someone who can play 60, you still need someone who can play 22 games and win. With these two goalies, we have that.”
Halak was nearly overlooked in the 2003 draft, finally going in the final round, 271st overall, to Montreal. He played a year of junior in Lewiston to help adapt to North American hockey before joining Long Beach of the ECHL and later Hamilton in 2005-06.
Price moved up from junior hockey just before the AHL playoffs last spring, while Halak was sent to tend goal for Slovakia at the world championships.
Carbonneau has been impressed by Halak’s self-confidence, particularly against the Islanders.
“It was his first game at home since last year and it was a tough situation,” Carbonneau said. “We couldn’t afford to lose that game.
“He knows that all the points at this time of year are crucial and he was really solid.”
As often happens after a win, Carbonneau elected to make no lineup changes, so forwards Maxim Lapierre, Mathieu Dandenault and Steve Begin and defenceman Ryan O’Byrne are slated to sit out.
Begin, who has missed the last nine games with a groin injury, skated a full practice with the team Monday and is ready to return to the lineup.
That gives the Canadiens a fully healthy 24-man roster. Even centre Tomas Plekanec, who has battled a flu of late, and Alex Kovalev, who was bothered by a sore ankle but continued to play, look back in top form.
That means some veterans have to sit.
“We have four extra guys and none of them are happy not to play, but they know we’ve have success because of the team and they’re not ready to disturb that because of their own ego,” said Carbonneau.
After practice Carbonneau flew to Chicoutimi to take part in an announcement that the Sagueneens of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League would enter a bid to play host to the 2009 Memorial Cup tournament. Carbonneau owns “some shares” in the Sagueneens. Rimouski and Shawinigan are also bidding for the event.