Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Slovakia turns to experienced Halak in goal

After leading Slovaks to fourth in 2010, Blues' netminder turned in 
strong performance for Montreal in playoffs; would take similar results in 2014

ST. LOUIS -- When Jaroslav Halak came off an Olympic experience with Slovakia in 2010, he came back and carried the Montreal Canadiens on a ride for the ages in the postseason.

Halak helped backstop Slovakia, which takes on the United States Thursday at 6:30 a.m. (St. Louis time), to a bronze medal game then before losing to Finland. But when he came back to the NHL, he supplanted Carey Price in the Canadiens' goal and went 9-9 with a 2.53 goals-against average and .923 save percentage in the postseason, including nearly single-handedly eliminating both Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals as well as Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins from that playoff season.
Jaroslav Halak at 2010 Olympics in Vancouver

Halak, who will get the start against USA and fellow Blues teammates David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Kevin Shattenkirk, wouldn't mind rewriting a similar script. He'd only like to help the Blues advance deeper than the conference final, where the Canadiens were eliminated by the Philadelphia Flyers then.

"I'm looking forward to it. It's an exciting time for all the players," said Halak, who is 24-8-4 with a 2.26 GAA and .915 save percentage with the Blues. "You know you're going to play against the best in the world. It's really a big honor and challenge for everybody. We'll see how everything plays out. 

"When I get back, hopefully, we can all play well. March is going to be a big month for us. I just want to play my best any time I'm called to play."

Halak is no stranger to international competition. This will mark his second Olympics. He was with Slovakia as well at the World Championships in 2007, 2009 and 2011.

"It's been a long time," Halak said. "It's been three years already (since the 2011 World Championships). I always look forward to it. It's a great honor to represent your country, whether it's at the Olympics or the World Championships. It's more special that it's the Olympics.

"It's going to be good to get to know some young guys and see the older guys and get everybody together."

Halak, who also played for Slovakia at the 2004 and 2005 World Junior Championships, is 7-10 with a 2.60 GAA and .903 save percentage in international competition, including 3-3 with a 2.41 GAA and .911 save percentage for the underdog Slovaks in 2010.

"The first Olympics, I enjoyed it, but I wasn't really paying attention completely to it," said Halak, who will not have any family with him in Sochi. "Now I know what it's all about. I know you have to be really good in every game in order to make a really good impression on everybody. We have to play one game at a time and do our best in every game.

(St. Louis Blues photo)
Slovakia will rely on Blues goalie Jaroslav Halak to 
help carry the load for the country's Olympic hopes.
"It's the biggest sport back home, but at the same time, I think our development system for young players is not the best. We do not have that (much) young talent coming up. For such a small country, we are fortunate to have the players like we have."

Slovakia will rely on the likes of Chicago's Marian Hossa and Boston's Zdeno Chara to help them persevere against more heavily-favored teams like USA, Canada, Sweden and Finland.

And in the Slovaks' first game, Halak will look across at some familiar faces in Backes, Oshie and Shattenkirk.

"We've faced him enough times in practice to have an understanding where to shoot against him," Shattenkirk quipped. "We know what Jaro's meant to us with the Blues and it'll be a great challenge to face him at the Olympics."

To which Halak joked back, "I know where they like to shoot, so I should be more than ready. But they (the Americans) have a great team and we'll have to play our best to beat them."

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