Jaroslav Halak likes to reminisce.

At 21, the young Slovakian doesn’t have to think back too far, and the technology exists where he can call much of his life up on a computer screen.

Halak, who played for the Lewiston Maineiacs in 2004-05, will also sift through the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Web site, find anything he can about the team, and click on it.

“We had a young team when I was there,” said Halak, “and now with two more years, it’s nice to see them in first place. I’m happy for the team. I see them in the standings, and I am very happy for them.”

Like he always did after a big win in Lewiston, Halak deflected attention from himself. He is still a shy person at heart, and he was almost reluctant to speak about his recent success.

And there has been plenty of it.

Halak, who now plays for the Hamilton Bulldogs of the American Hockey League, posted a 0.82 goals-against average and a .972 save percentage in eight games in November. He earned the AHL’s Goaltender of the Month honor for his accomplishments.

“We’ve had Jaro signed at 17, 18-years-old,” Montreal Canadiens’ goaltending coach Roland Melanson said after a recent practice in Hamilton. “He’s always been a goalie who wants to learn every part of the game, the details of the game, from covering percentages to when to turn his feet. He’s getting rewarded for that work with victories right now.”

Taking a chance

The Lewiston Maineiacs took a chance on Jaroslav Halak in 2004.

He repaid the organization in saves – many of them.

Halak was already 19 when the Maineiacs brought him from Slovakia to play between the pipes in Lewiston, and had one more year in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League before he would sign with the Montreal Canadiens.

But he still needed work.

“He brought depth to the team,” said Maineiacs’ coach Clem Jodoin. “He helped a young team to win some hockey games.”

And, he was a sponge without pores.

Everything he learned – technique, positioning, angles, the English language – he retained.

“He wanted to learn, to compete,” said Jodoin. “To go to a new country, to make new friends and learn a new language at 19, that’s tough, and he did it quickly.”

Halak posted a 24-17-4 record, with a 2.78 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage. He helped the Maineiacs to their only playoff series win to date, a 4-0 sweep of the Shawinigan Cataractes, posting a 1.75 GAA and a .944 save percentage in those four games.

“He was just what the young team needed,” said Jodoin.

The next (tough) step

Halak’s next few months in hockey were less than stable. Property of the Canadiens, Halak started the season in Montreal’s camp. He then went through camp with the Bulldogs.

At the time, though, Hamilton shared roster space with the Canadiens and the Edmonton Oilers.

“We knew with the depth we had, because we had a goalie here from Edmonton’s organization, that we wanted him to have his own net,” said Hamilton coach Don Lever.

With the logjam, Halak ended up in Long Beach with the Ice Dogs, Montreal’s East Coast Hockey League affiliate at the time.

“Last year, we had him projected for the East Coast League,” said Melanson, “but he pushed so hard, we had to notice him.”

The team noticed, too, when he got hurt. Twice.

But later in the season, when Edmonton pulled its goaltender out of Hamilton, and when the Canadiens sent another goalie back to Long Beach, Halak got another chance.

He won his first game, 3-2, in a shootout, making 38 saves. He earned his first shutout in his second game, a 21-save effort in a 1-0 win over San Antonio.

“He was on a roll,” said Lever. “I think he had something like three shutouts in the first six games. Then he had a solid two or three weeks beyond that.”

Finally

This year, there was no doubt that Halak would start the season in Hamilton – as the No. 2 behind Yann Danis.

“They told me to start the season, I would be the No. 2 goalie again,” said Halak. “I didn’t play a lot in the first month at all, but I started to play in November a lot more.”

Play, Halak did.

And well.

“He’s put pressure on the other guys in the organization,” said Melanson. “He’s pushing, and he’s pushing hard, and that’s the best way to put your foot in the door. Now, he’s pushing Yann Danis here in Hamilton, and Yann has to be on top of his game. Ice time is not there to be given out, it has to be earned.”

In 16 games this season, Halak has five shutouts, a 1.48 GAA and a .950 save percentage. His Goalie of the Month designation in November came after he made 208 saves on 214 shots.

“I felt awfully good for a while,” admitted Halak. “The more I played, the better I got.”

Despite some rosy numbers, the kind that would make even Patrick Roy drool, Halak hasn’t been without a bad outing this season.

“There was one game in Iowa that I got pulled, that I didn’t play good in,” said Halak.

Halak’s numbers, then, are solid in spite of that game, in which he allowed three goals on 12 shots in less than 21 minutes.

In his next start, he stopped all 28 shots he faced against the best team in the AHL, the Rochester Americans, to earn a shutout win.

“You have to let go of games like (the Iowa game),” said Halak. “It was just that kind of night. The next time, I saw a lot of shots and I stopped them all.”

The next night, Halak nearly had another shutout, but settled for a 6-1 win over Milwaukee. Two nights later, he was back to being perfect, stopping 32 of 32 in another shutout win.

“He’s the kind of goalie who loves to compete,” said Melanson. “He’s paying his dues on and off the ice, in the gym, in the video room. He has a great love for the game.”

Looking forward

Halak’s first game following his impressive month of November was less than stellar. He allowed three goals on 29 shots in a home loss to the Toronto Marlies.

But his optimism remains.

And so does that of his goaltending coach.

“He’s definitely ahead of schedule,” said Melanson.

Despite his success, Halak admitted there were still things he wanted to work on, including his speed and the way he covers his angles.

Melanson also mentioned Halak’s injury problems.

“One thing he still has to improve on is that he has to learn to play through discomfort and nagging injuries that are part of the game,” said Melanson. “We’d never ask him to play through a serious injury, though. The bumps, the bruises of everyday playing, though, he has to learn to play through pain.”

Montreal’s goaltending pool is deep, too. Cristobal Huet and David Abeischer are locked into high-paying contracts, and Yann Danis, Halak’s counterpart in Hamilton, also has played well this season. Likely coming in next year is Montreal’s No. 1 pick from last season’s draft, Carey Price.

“I really don’t know what’s going on (in the organization),” said Halak. “I just try to stop the puck as many times as I can. Right now, my whole goal is to help the team here win games. When I get a shot (at the NHL), I will get the shot, but I am still a young goalie. I still have a lot to learn and develop. It is still early for me right now.”

Someday, Halak will be able to reminisce about that moment, too.


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