Bruins’ Halak Returning to Early-Season Form

The Boston Bruins nabbed Jaroslav Halak from the free agent market on July 1. His duty was to replace backup netminder Anton Kuhdobin who parted ways with the team that summer. In his first months as a Bruin, Halak did much more than that.

Halak was playing like a starting goalie – something he has been for other NHL teams in the past. Tuukka Rask was starting off the 2018-19 campaign slow, much like he did the season before. Halak was leaned on more and more, especially when Rask took a leave of absence in November.

Jaroslav Halak Boston Bruins
Goaltender Jaroslav Halak came up big when the Boston Bruins needed him most. (Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports)

Rask returned after his break and ramped up his level of play. During this time, Halak began falling back down to Earth. While he wasn’t necessarily playing poorly, he was just performing at the level a backup in the NHL is expected to – the level many in Boston had expected upon signing him.

Halak’s Resurgence

In the month of January, Halak was only called upon five times. He went 1-3-1 with 16 goals against and a .863 save percentage (SV%). It could have been a crippling blow to the Bruins if Rask hadn’t returned to his elite form.

Halak kicked February off with a start against the New York Rangers. After Mike Zibanejad opened up the scoring in the first, the Bruins responded with three goals in the second period alone to pot a 3-1 lead. However, Boston did what they have done far too often since the All-Star break: they collapsed.

It’s hard to blame Halak for allowing the Rangers to come back into the game. Pavel Buchnevich literally skated through four Bruins to earn a breakaway in the third period. After denying that attempt, the puck was loose out front and Jimmy Vesey was able to find an undefended Kevin Hayes in the slot to make it 3-2. Minutes later, Buchnevich took a slap shot from the point. The Bruins’ netminder was forced to fight through traffic but got his pad on the puck. It glanced off his leg and hit the post which resulted in an easy tap in for an uncovered Filip Chytil.

Tony DeAngelo, Jaroslav Halak
New York Rangers defenseman Tony DeAngelo scores the shootout-winning goal against Jaroslav Halak (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

The game then went to a three-on-three overtime and eventually a shootout: both of which are a goalie’s worst nightmare. Halak forced seven innings, but New York edged out Boston 2-1 in the shootout and thus 4-3 in the game. It was the netminder’s second shootout loss in a row, but instead of letting that get to him he used it as motivation.

Halak returned to action with a win at home against the Colorado Avalanche – a team they hadn’t defeated at the Garden since 1998. It took overtime, but the Bruins got it done thanks to a game-winning goal by Brad Marchand. Halak backstopped them to victory with 35 saves on 36 shots, holding Colorado’s high-powered top line to just one goal – a goal that could most easily be blamed on Brandon Carlo who fell victim to chasing Nathan MacKinnon below the goal line.

Halak Can Build Upon Shutout

Most recently, Halak inked a 3-0 shutout against the Anaheim Ducks. While the Ducks are near the bottom of Western Conference, it wasn’t an easy win for the Bruins. Anaheim got a number of prime opportunities throughout the game. Considering that Boston had a slim lead for the majority of the contest, any mishap could have changed the result of the game.

Luckily for the Bruins, Halak brought his A-game. Many of his biggest saves forced him to go from post-to-post to take away what looked like a sure goal. The beauty was in the simplicity – the Bruins’ netminder made every save look easy. Halak was nonchalant throughout the 60-minute contest and radiated confidence.

Jaroslav Halak, Max Jones, John Moore, Kevan Miller
Jaroslav Halak’s shutout against the Anaheim Ducks is exactly what the Boston Bruins need to continue their playoff push. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

The shutout could be a turning point for Halak who had a difficult two-month stint from December to January, going 5-6-1 during that time. Through the first two months of the season, the goaltender had gone 8-3-2 with a .936 SV%. It seems as though we’re seeing that version of Halak once again.

The way Rask has been playing (9-0-2 since the start of January), I don’t believe Halak will be forcing yet another goalie controversy in Boston. However, a strong backup can be the difference between making the playoffs and not. As the Bruins currently find themselves in the midst of a highly-competitive playoff race, Halak’s resurgence seems to be coming at the perfect time.