Jaroslav Halak is doing it again.
He is taking an undermanned team, one that doesn’t match up with its opponents on paper, and carrying it to a level nobody expected it to reach.
He did it during the 2010 NHL playoffs as a member of the Montreal Canadiens when he helped a No. 8 seed upset that year’s Presidents’ Trophy winning team in the first round, and then the defending Stanley Cup champions in the second round. The Canadiens were mostly outplayed in each series, but Halak was so good, and so dominant, that it didn’t matter. He was the single biggest reason his team reached the Eastern Conference Final that year.
He showed how much of an impact a hot goalie can make on a team a short series.
He is kind of doing it again this year at the World Cup for Team Europe as it is now in the championship series getting ready to take on Team Canada.
The team in front of him isn’t getting outplayed to the same degree that the 2010 Canadiens were in those playoffs, but Halak has still been his team’s best player and the biggest factor in its current success. His .946 save percentage through four games is among the best in the tournament, while his 37 save effort in the semifinal on Sunday was probably his best one so far (and that includes his opening game shutout against the United States).
The European team has its share of forward talent up front. Anze Kopitar is one of the best two-way players in hockey and has been spectacular in this tournament. Marian Gaborik and Thomas Vanek are former 40-goal scorers in the NHL, while Frans Nielsen has always been one of the more underrated players in the league.
But the defense, even with a great player like Roman Josi, doesn’t really come close to matching some other teams in the tournament.
It has two players that don’t currently have NHL contracts (Dennis Seidenberg and Christian Ehrhoff). Zdeno Chara is 38 years old and has clearly slowed down from where he was a few years ago.
As a team, they have the oldest roster in the tournament, and based on their pre-tournament games it looked like they were going to be nothing more than a minor speed bump for the rest of their teams in their group.
Put all of that together and it put a ton of pressure on Halak to be on top of his game to give his team a chance to even stay competitive, let alone win.
He has done that and more so far in the tournament, and it is the single biggest reason the team that opened the tournament as the biggest long shot to win the whole thing (33/1) is in the final.
From a big picture standpoint Halak is not the best goalie in hockey. But sometimes in a short tournament all you need is a good goalie to get on a hot streak. And he is still capable of putting together those streaks that can carry a team, and he is doing it again in this tournament just as he did in the 2010 playoffs.