Jaroslav Halak is in the middle of an excellent season, after a great Olympic run, he is one of the hottest goalies in the NHL right now. He's the single shining exemplar of quality NHL play on a Montreal team that, otherwise, appears ready for the trash heap.
The question of whether or not Montreal makes the playoffs is still up in the air as a result of the team's inability to score five on five, a sputtering power play, and a propensity to give up odd-man rushes that is becoming legendary.
Jaroslav Halak, however, will not be the reason Montreal doesn't make the playoffs. This sink or swim training ground the Habs have abandoned him to, may just have helped turn him in to the best goalie in the Eastern Conference as the playoffs approach.
The Canadiens are 10-5-3 since the Olympic break. Price has a win in Boston, a loss in San Jose and Carolina, a shoot-out loss in Buffalo, and a game that he was chased from in Anaheim that Halak won in a shoot-out.
The rest has been Halak.
He has bumped his top five save percentage up into the top three in the league. He's third now with a .927 save percentage behind only Tuukka Rask's .930 and Ryan Miller's .928.
Halak plays on a team in Montreal that gives up more pucks than any other team in the east at 828. Toronto, the current worst team in the east, has only 697 giveaways as a team.
The Washington Capitals, an offensive juggernaut that can afford to be careless with the puck in the search for unrestrained offense, has given up 702. The closest team to them in the east is the Islanders with 723 giveaways.
Not surprisingly the Canadiens also give up a fifth worst in the league, 32.2 shots per game. Only Atlanta and Florida in the east give up more. Montreal thus affords their goaltenders a chance not only to stop a large quantity of shots, but also give up a high number of quality scoring chances because of their predilection to cough up the puck.
Combine this with the high pressure atmosphere in Montreal that surrounds the hockey team, and Halak's ability to succeed year after year after year now is almost biblical in nature. He's doing his job with calm and poise under conditions that might cause Job to scream for a trade.
Ryan Miller still has to be considered one of the best goalies in hockey based on his body of work this year and with a heavier work-load he's managed still to have a better save percentage than Halak.
Buffalo's defense hasn't been as shaky as Montreal's, but they're still giving up 31.4 shots per game—21st in the league, which makes Miller’s play look all the better.
Tuukka Rask rounds out the top three goalies in the east. He's leading all goalies who have played at least half of their team’s minutes with a .930 save percentage. He's playing in one of the few hockey environments that may rival Montreal or Toronto for the pressure they put on their players.
Boston's offense has been the worst in the league, which again requires the goalie of such a team to be under pressure to play perfectly all the time.
Boston's defense has been tighter than both Buffalo's and Montreal's, allowing a 13th least in the league, 29.7 shots per game, tying them with Toronto and the Rangers.
That and his relative playoff inexperience has me thinking Rask is the third best goalie in the east heading in to these playoffs.
Henrik Lundquist is a step behind these three goalies heading right now. His team is giving up the same number of shots as Boston. The Rangers are scoring more than Boston. He's got a heavy workload, but the .920 save percentage leaves him a little further down the depth chart of eastern goalies. This of course is only true if the Rangers actually make the playoffs.
If he doesn't, Martin Brodeur will move up, but right now he looks like the fifth best goalie in the east going in to the playoffs. He's playing behind what is again this year a tight New Jersey defense. They're giving up the second fewest shots on goal in the league at 27.1 per game. He's had reasonable numbers under pretty controlled conditions, but he's leading the league in minutes played and wins and shut-outs.
However, his .916 save percentage has him tied for 12th best in the league among goalies who have played at least half their teams minutes. His performance in the playoffs the last two years and in the Olympics versus the U.S. has to have Devil fans worried that Brodeur is reaching the point in his career where he can no longer compete effectively at the top level of hockey.
Marc-Andre Fleury statistically is looking like one of the worst goalies in the east. High strung and tiny he played well last year and made some spectacular saves on the way to the cup.
The defense in Pittsburgh has been relatively tight this year, just behind Ottawa, giving up 28.6 shots per game. Fleury has a .904 save percentage this year which is miserable in this NHL. He's tied with Patrick Lalime.
Still, based on last year's performance I'm going to give him credit for being the sixth best goalie going in to the playoffs in the east this year. He's certainly got a spectacular performance in him.
Jose Theodore in Washington represents another huge drop off in ability among the eastern goalies. He's had a good contract year in Washington managing a just below median .910 save percentage behind what looks like a great offensive team.
He and or Varlamov might be enough for a team that can outscore everyone else. He's certainly not shown anything recently that suggests he'll be a good playoff performer for Washington. If he'd played the second game in the first round last year Washington might not have gotten by the Rangers.
Brian Elliot in Ottawa is playing behind a defense that gives up the fourth fewest shots on goal a game in the league. His .909 save percentage is again not impressive, but he's been good enough when Ottawa has been able to manage a tight defensive game. Leclaire doesn't look ready to pick up the baton if Elliot drops it.
The worst goaltender/goaltending situation going in to the playoffs is of course the Boucher/Flyer situation.
The Flyers have improved their team defense immensely this year and have given up a sixth fewest, 28.7 shots per game.
After the injuries to Emery and Leighton the goaltending has fallen to Brian Boucher.
Boucher in his 31 games has managed a mere .899 save percentage despite Philadelphia's defensive play. The only save percentages out there that are worse than his among the goalies who have played at least a third of their teams minutes, belong to Steve Mason, Mike Smith, Cristobel Huet, Pascal Leclaire, and Vesa Toskala.
Philadelphia might be further ahead, if they make the playoffs, to try AHL goalie Johan Backlund. The 28-year-old has middle of the road AHL numbers and at least the NHL scorers won't be familiar with him. Boucher is too well known in the NHL. He's had flashes of brilliance throughout his career, but that seems over.
So, after looking at all the goaltenders going into the playoffs in the Eastern Conference I believe a strong case can be made for Jaroslav Halak being the best or one of the best of them at this time in the season.
For the Montreal Canadiens to do anything in the playoffs they'll need Halak to be the best goalie in every playoff game he plays. Even Halak will have trouble taking this Montreal team beyond the first round but perhaps he can keep them competitive.