When the Boston Bruins announced Tuukka Rask had left the team for personal reasons just hours before their Game 3 matchup against the Carolina Hurricanes, fans went into a frenzy. Once the dust settled on the archaic, “How could he do this to the team?” debate, most Bruins fans turned their attention to the man who would be taking over the crease, Jaroslav Halak.
While many had their reservations about Halak’s ability to carry the Bruins on a deep playoff run, his play since being thrust into the starting role has silenced even the harshest critics. In four appearances since Rask’s departure, Halak has posted a .936 save percentage, a 1.75 goals-against average, and, most importantly, four enormous playoff wins. Although his recent success may come as a surprise to some, those familiar with his playoff history have come to expect nothing less.
Halak’s first taste of the postseason came as a member of the Montreal Canadiens in 2008 when he appeared in two games against the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. After Carey Price allowed three goals on 12 shots, Halak took over and played 18 minutes and 56 seconds of shutout hockey. He extended his shutout streak to 47:43 in Game 4, before surrendering a power-play goal to R.J. Umberger in the middle frame.
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Halak allowed three goals on 25 shots in a losing effort and did not see playoff action again until the following season. His next postseason appearance was against the Bruins when he stopped all five shots in relief of Price during Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Quarter-Finals in 2009.
In his final season with Montreal, Halak went into hero mode in the postseason. We’re talking a full-on Greg Jennings, “My leg broke, I put the team on my back though” level of commitment. Despite only winning nine of his 18 playoff starts in 2010, he posted a .923 save percentage, and 2.55 goals-against average while dragging a very average Habs team to the Eastern Conference Final.
His advanced stats were even more impressive through this stretch, with 8.68 goals saved above average and a .667 quality-start percentage. Halak almost single-handedly willed the eighth place Habs to series wins against the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals. Despite his Herculean effort in the bleu, blanc et rouge, the Canadiens traded Halak to the St. Louis Blues in exchange for Lars Eller and Ian Schultz in the summer of 2010.
St. Louis Blues and New York Islanders
Halak spent the next eight seasons split between the Blues and the New York Islanders, appearing in a total of nine playoff games. Although this is a relatively small sample size, his playoff pedigree was on full display, as he recorded an impressive .927 save percentage and 2.11 goals-against average.
As a member of the Blues, Islanders and Canadiens, his ability to perform in relief or as a starting goaltender was a tremendous asset and the main reason general manager Don Sweeney signed him to a two-year contract on July 1, 2018.
In his first campaign as a Bruin, Halak had an excellent regular season (22-11-4, .922 SV%, 2.34 GAA), but was not called upon during the Bruins’ run to the Stanley Cup Final. Rask started all 24 of the B’s playoff games in 2019, and his outstanding performance garnered him third place in Conn Smythe Trophy voting. The 2020 Playoffs have been a different story, however, as Halak has suited up as the starting netminder in five games during the NHL’s Return to Play.
Following a shaky outing during the round-robin (.862 SV%, 4.30 GAA), he has returned to form in the four contests since Rask’s unexpected departure. Four straight wins, a .936 save percentage, and 1.75 goals-against average have calmed the nerves of Bruins fans everywhere.
Not an Act, but a Habit
Despite an exceptional playoff resume, many questioned Halak’s ability to take on a heavier workload in Rask’s absence. While losing the Vezina Trophy nominee was a major blow to the Bruins’ lineup, Halak may be the best ‘Plan B’ in the NHL.
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Boasting a career playoff save percentage and goals-against average of .924% and 2.39, respectively, the B’s netminder is on pace to set career bests in both categories this postseason. Although it can be argued that the 2020 Playoffs represent a small sample size, Halak’s career numbers indicate that his performance has been anything but a fluke.