They say hockey is the quintessential team sport. For the most part, they’re correct. However, Jaroslav Halak just demonstrated that, sometimes, an individual effort can alter the future of not only the person responsible for it, but of his team – and of players not remotely involved in the game.
Of course, the Canadiens goalie had more than a little shot-blocking assistance from his teammates Wednesday night in Montreal’s 2-1 Game 7 victory over Washington. Nevertheless, those who would argue he wasn’t the principal cause of the Capitals’ stunning opening round playoff elimination are factually challenged in the extreme.
Halak was magnificent for the underdog Habs in Games 5 through 7, stopping 131 of 134 Caps shots and finishing the first round with a .939 save percentage. Montrealers and Canadiens fans planet-wide will romanticize his performance until Patrick Roy XVIII ascends to his rightful position in their net – yet the ramifications and reverberations of the Slovak’s showing will affect many more people than that and much sooner.
The first group most obviously affected by Halak is the Capitals, who dominated the regular season in the equivalent of a sellout, critically praised, multi-city off-Broadway tour, but bombed out Ishtar-style once their act made it to the Great White Way that is the playoffs.
As such, blame will be assigned liberally inside the Washington organization – although the bulk of it shouldn’t fall at the skates of team captain Alex Ovechkin, whose sense of urgency was not matched by many of his teammates – and the D.C. stints of particular veteran players will end.
Goalie Jose Theodore will be seeking employment in another NHL city. So will defenseman Joe Corvo, as well as forwards Eric Belanger, Scott Walker and Brendan Morrison. And those who remain on Washington’s roster will have the skunk-like fragrance of big-game failure to try and scrub clean throughout the summer and the 2010-11 regular season. (Hint: tomato juice isn’t going to help you, fellas.)
Because of Halak, do the Capitals now turn to a Marty Turco or Tim Thomas type of goalie next season and push Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth into the background?
Does GM George McPhee consider trading Alex Semin – who couldn’t score on Halak in 44 first round attempts – or work with local law enforcement officials to identify who was impersonating the 40-goal scoring winger against Montreal?
Do the Caps spend what little cap space they have to acquire a stay-at-home veteran like Adam Foote who can balance off Mike Green’s annual playoff meltdown?
None of these questions would be asked – at least, this early in the spring – were it not for Halak’s greatness. But the ripple effect of his stellar play extends far beyond Montreal’s vanquished opponent.
For starters, Halak has potentially cleared the way for the Pittsburgh Penguins to run the Eastern Conference table and return to the Stanley Cup final for the third straight year. He’s also given league GMs more hope that, as long as a team can make it to the eighth seed of the playoffs, it has a shot at doing some real damage.
Even within his own team’s ranks, Halak has planted the seeds for a series of events that will provide great drama in HabsVille this summer.
Regardless of how Montreal performs during the rest of these playoffs, is there now any chance Canadiens GM Pierre Gauthier doesn’t anoint Halak as his starter and trade the still-maturing Carey Price in the off-season? That absolutely has to happen, right?
And doesn’t the Habs’ first round win give Montreal fans and management what is arguably a false sense of security about their future? Sure, they beat the league’s best regular season team, but the Canadiens were outplayed for large portions of the series and remain a franchise that isn’t considered a bona fide, Detroit-deep, Stanley Cup contender.
Regardless of whether Halak’s performance turns out to be the first falling domino in a cascade of important, league-wide off-season moves, he did prove one thing against Washington.
Some may suggest that nothing short of a total team effort will push a franchise through the minefield that is the NHL playoffs.
Halak and alas, that’s simply untrue.
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Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears regularly, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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