Rookie goalie Halak takes spotlight in Canadiens drive for playoff spot

Sat out for three games after he was pulled from a 6-2 loss in Atlanta on March 8, the 21-year-old Slovak rebounded with a huge effort in a 3-2 shootout win over Toronto on Saturday night.

So he will be in the net again on Tuesday night at the Bell Centre when the Canadiens play the first of consecutive matches with the Boston Bruins. They met again in Boston on Thursday.

“I was hoping for another chance,” Halak said Monday. “I’m just happy we won that game.

“I felt I had nothing to lose. I just tried to have fun and help the guys win the game.”

But now that he has the starting role again, does he still feel there’s nothing to lose?

“Yeah,” he said. “I can only show them I can play good.”

The Canadiens will also have centre Radek Bonk back after missing three games with a virus. That will take defenceman Mathieu Dandenault off fill-in duty as a forward and bump newcomer Josh Gorges from the lineup.

Coach Guy Carbonneau played the hot hand all season with goalies Cristobal Huet and David Aebischer, and is doing the same with Aebischer and Halak while Huet sits out with a hamstring injury.

Aebischer made enough saves to win games last week over St. Louis and the New York Islanders, but was brutal in a 6-3 loss in Pittsburgh on Friday night, leaving Carbonneau little choice but to come back with Halak.

Third goalie Michael Leighton, who dressed as back-up twice last week, is yet to play since he was acquired at the Feb. 27 trade deadline.

“Right now, Halak has shown he’s ready to play and we’ll leave him in until he isn’t,” Carbonneau said. “It’s the same for any player.

“If they play well, they stay in. If they don’t, how long can you keep them there? I’m all for second chances, but you have to win.”

These are desperate times for Montreal, which is tied with Toronto and the Islanders for ninth place in the Eastern Conference – one spot short of playoff position with nine games left to play.

A loss to Toronto may have been devastating, but in an emotionally charged, nationally televised game, Halak stopped 37 of 39 shots and three more in the shootout to pull out the win.

His coolness in goal impressed teammate Mike Komisarek.

“He was poised back there,” the big defenceman said. “He was eager to get back in, but he was really calm.

“You didn’t see any reaction or emotions from him. You didn’t see him hanging his head. His focus was amazing with all the energy and electricity in the building. I’d go back and say some things and tap him on the pads and he just had a blank look on his face, like we were playing pond hockey or something.”

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Halak, drafted 271st overall in 2003, was having a stellar season with AHL Hamilton until he was called up in mid-February when Huet had a torn hamstring surgically repaired.

He won his first three NHL starts, but then lost four in a row, culminating with the blowout loss to Atlanta.

A refocused Halak is welcome by the Canadiens. Among their goaltenders, he is best at handling the puck.

“He made the saves when we needed them and that’s all you can ask from a goalie,” added Carbonneau. “When you have a goalie who makes the saves look easy, it gives confidence to the whole team.

“At this point in the season, we needed that performance – so we can go on offence and make some mistakes without worrying that the puck will end up in our net.”

The home-and-away series with Boston is crucial for both teams. The Bruins are five points behind Montreal with two games in hand, so a sweep could put them back in the playoff picture. The Bruins will also visit on April 3.

Boston is coming off a 7-0 loss to the New York Rangers, but they are 3-2 against Montreal this season.

“They’re probably pretty hungry – I mean 7-0,” said Canadiens forward Mike Johnson. “They’re only five points behind so by no means are they out of the playoffs.

“They’ll probably come in here a little more focused.”

The Canadiens also play 14th-place Washington on Saturday, but what looks like an easy week could be difficult. The Capitals are coming off a 5-1 win over Toronto on Friday and a 7-1 blitzing of Tampa Bay on Sunday.

“The teams that aren’t playing for the playoffs are loose and have nothing to lose, and when they’ve got skilled guys, anything can happen” Johnson said. “Trying to forecast by the schedule isn’t accurate or fair because everyone’s playing for something at this time of year.

“Boston may be below us, but with their games in hand, if they win them, they’re one point behind us. I don’t think we have an easy game for the rest of the season.”

Bonk practised on a line with Johnson and Mark Streit, while Saku Koivu skated with Michael Ryder and grinder Steve Begin, Tomas Plekanec centred Chris Higgins and Andrei Kostitsyn and Maxim Lapierre was between Alex Kovalev and Guillaume Latendresse.

Huet, who resumed skating last week, joined the practice for about 15 minutes and hopes to make his sessions with the team progressively longer. He may be able to return before the end of the regular season, although no date has been fixed.