Jaroslav Halak is not a backup goalie; he was just playing one on TV for a while. But the veteran Bruins netminder has been tossed back into the spotlight after Boston mate Tuukka Rask left the NHL playoff bubble in order to deal with a family emergency.
Since then, the Bruins haven't missed a beat - and why should they? Halak has proven time and again in his career that he is capable of carrying a heavy load and doing more than his fair share to get a win. In Game 1 of Boston's second-round series against Tampa Bay, that meant shutting the door in a big second period that saw the Lightning blitz the Bruins' net with some excellent chances, all of which were turned away by Halak in an eventual 3-2 victory.
While Tampa was tepid for some stretches of the series opener, that fast-paced Lightning attack was on display a lot in the second, with Erik Cernak, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov among those who had Grade A scoring chances turned away by Halak. When the Bruins netminder finally surrendered a pair of goals to Victor Hedman in the third, both were tricky shots through traffic. But it was his earlier work that set the tone for the win.
"He was dominant that period," said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy. "The two goals - one went off Charlie (McAvoy), the other had eyes - they certainly got a couple of fortunate ones - but boy, did he make some saves in the second where they probably deserved better. Both goalies did their job, we just happened to be one save better."
Beating the Bruins is always going to be a tall task with this particular cohort because the combination of smarts, experience and two-way excellence is such a tough thing to combat. Boston received the necessary offense from players such as David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand, while also getting the stops needed in their own end from Halak.
"They're a good team, they're going to push," said center Charlie Coyle. "They had their chances and Jaro is there to shut the door on a number of good chances to keep us ahead. It could have been a totally different game. We gotta help him out as much as we can, but we also have so much confidence in him. He's a great goalie, he's been huge for us and that's what we need from him: when they slip in there and we break down a little bit, he's there to shut the door."
When spinning a yarn about Halak, the default anecdote naturally goes back to his early NHL days with the Montreal Canadiens and specifically the magical run to the Eastern Conference final in 2010. During that streak, Halak and the Habs foiled Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals in the first round, then Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second, before finally running out of steam against the Philadelphia Flyers in the Stanley Cup semifinal.
Halak was magic throughout, but let's not get stuck that far in the past: the Slovakian national has been great in more recent high-pressure situations, too. For example, while playing for Team Europe at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, Halak was ice-water cool for a misfit squad of stars from Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland, Germany and beyond. Team Europe ended up going to the final where they were slain by a devastatingly good Canadian squad, but Halak still finished the tournament with a .941 save percentage in six games.
Now, at 35, Halak is still keeping the crease safe as Rask's battery mate in Boston. Winning a Stanley Cup these days requires incredible depth at all positions and Bruins GM Don Sweeney should be commended for grabbing the veteran via free agency in the summer of 2018 on a very reasonable $2.7 million cap hit.
It seemed savvy at the time and now, with Rask indisposed, it may be a big reason why the Bruins win the Cup. There is still a lot of hockey to be played before that happens, of course - but we've seen Halak step up before. Why not one more time?