TORONTO – Of all the potential storylines for the World Cup of Hockey’s best-of-three final round, revisiting the epic Jaroslav Halak vs. Carey Price goaltending controversy didn’t seem to be a likely one.
Not with Halak’s Team Europe starting at a 33-to-1 longshot before the tournament. And yet, here we are, with Canada and Europe set to battle for the Cup beginning on Tuesday, after Halak led his team to a semifinal win over Sweden and Price led his over Russia.
So let’s revisit it, shall we?
Before Price became an MVP, a Vezina winner and Team Canada’s gold-medal winning goaltender, he was embroiled in one of the NHL’s most contentious goaltending controversies in recent memory.
In Montreal, in 2010, you were either “Team Price” or “Team Halak.”
To reset the scene: Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak shared the crease in Montreal. Halak was a ninth-round pick from Slovakia in 2003, the 25th goalie taken in that draft. Price was selected fifth overall from British Columbia in 2005. Price was the golden boy, seen as the next heir to the throne previously occupied by the likes of Dryden and Roy. Halak got fewer starts but was effective in them.
That was until 2009-10, when the 24-year-old Halak had 43 starts and a .924 save percentage to the 22-year-old Price’s 39 starts and a .912 save percentage. Halak earned the majority of starts with stellar but streaky play, and earned the Game 1 start in the No. 8 seed Montreal Canadiens’ series against the No. 1 seed Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Halak stunned the Caps in a 3-2 overtime win. He was on the losing end of a 6-5 overtime loss in Game 2, and then was pulled in a Game 3 loss at Bell Centre. Although Halak couldn’t be faulted, Price got the start in Game 4. The Canadiens lost, 6-3, and Price took two unsportsmanlike penalties in defeat.
So it was back to Halak for Game 5, down 3-1. And the magic began.
He made 37 saves on 38 shots to win Game 5. He made 53 saves in 54 shots in a Game 6 win. He made 41 saves on 42 shots in Game 7, completing one of the biggest upsets in NHL history.
“No one gave us a chance to win,” said Halak.
He’d go on to lead the Canadiens over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the semifinals before falling to the Philadelphia Flyers in the conference final. But he had captured the hearts, minds and respect of the Canadiens fans.
One problem: Both he and Price were headed towards unrestricted free agency. Management felt they had to keep one and trade the other.
They sold high. On June 17, roughly three weeks after his playoff run ended, Halak was traded to the St. Louis Blues for Lars Eller, who played six years with the Canadiens, and Ian Schultz, who did not.
Fans were outraged: Mostly because of the small return for a playoff hero, but also because Halak was traded rather than Price.
Fans like this guy:
(Whatever happened to that guy?)
The situation was so contentious that Price was booed in the preseason by Habs fans.
It was ugly.
Six years later … well, Pierre Gauthier obviously picked the right guy, even if he made a less than stellar trade. This was fairly evident at the time, in the mind if not in the heart. Price is among the elite of the elite; Halak played well in Ken Hitchcock’s system in St. Louis, before finding some diminishing returns with the Capitals and then the Islanders. Last season, injuries limited him to 36 games, one of the reasons he felt the World Cup was a great challenge:
“I wanted to get out there and just prove it to myself personally. I went through some ups and downs last year, being injured. It’s always hard to come back. I had a whole summer to train hard, get myself ready for this tournament,” said Halak. “I’m glad that it worked out so far. But it’s not over.”
Halak has always done his best when the odds are against him, whether it was in the 2010 Canadiens’ run or as Slovakia’s goalie in the Vancouver Olympics or in this World Cup of Hockey run for Team Europe, in which his steady play allowed them to take out both Team USA and Sweden en route to the showdown with Canada.
Again, few people expected this. Team Europe was the World Cup’s ‘junk drawer’ team, made up of players from countries that didn’t have teams in the tournament, including Halak’s Slovakia. And Halak wasn’t even expected to be the starter for this team when it was formed: Frederik Andersen was injured during an Olympic qualifying game for Denmark, and had to miss the World Cup.
“From Day 1, he grabbed the ball. When Andersen fell away, Jaro just smoothly stepped in and grabbed the ball, and he hasn’t dropped it or let anybody else take it,” said coach Ralph Krueger of Team Europe. “I think his personality; his experience also from the past with Slovakia and in the National Hockey League has helped us. He’s been outstanding. He’s been absolutely fantastic.”
And now, he gets a shot at doing something with Team Europe that he never had with Team Slovakia: Winning a championship.
“Unfortunately, none of these countries can put their whole team together [for the World Cup]. Now we have a chance to bring all these guys together. It’s a big challenge,” he said. “We’ve created a story right now. We just have to keep going.”
The story now includes a rather intriguing new chapter: Halak vs. Price.
“I think there’s going to be a personal … I don’t want to say rivalry, but both guys know who’s at the other end, and we’re very comfortable with our goalie,” said GM Doug Armstrong of Team Canada, who acquired Halak in that trade between the Blues and Canadiens. “I know they’re very comfortable with their goalie, so it should be very interesting.”
Halak was asked if he had contemplated this moment, and the chance to take on Price in the World Cup final, years after their friendly rivalry ended with him being banished from Montreal.
“I don’t,” said Halak. “He’s gonna play for Team Canada. I’m gonna play for Team Europe. Obviously, he’s one of the best goalies in the League, if not the best.
“I’m just going to try and match him.”
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