NHL Playoffs: The Keys to the Stanley Cup Are in Jaroslav Halak's Hands

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NHL Playoffs: The Keys to the Stanley Cup Are in Jaroslav Halak's Hands
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In the 2005-2006 season following the NHL lockout, the Edmonton Oilers entered the playoffs as the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference postseason.

There was no doubt the Oilers were massive underdogs, but they managed to overcome the odds time and time again. In the end, against all expectations, the Oilers won the Western Conference and advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals against the Eastern Conference's No. 2 seed, the Carolina Hurricanes.

After the 'Canes jumped out to a 3-1 series lead, Edmonton once again dug deep and fought for all they had. They once again did the unexpected, and won Game Five to bring the series within one win.

Then they won Game Six, too.

The world of hockey fans were on their feet for the Game Seven that would determine it all: the Cup, the season, and perhaps the fate of the struggling National Hockey League.

Would it be the Hurricanes, favorites from the start, or the Oilers, the dark horse no one expected to be there?

Edmonton had shown grit, determination, and everlasting confidence despite their nearly impossible task to reach that game, and many sided with the Canadian underdogs at the crucial moment.

But, at the end of the final game of the season, the Oilers had fallen three goals to one and finished one win short of a stunning Stanley Cup victory. Immediately, questions were raised: What stopped the Oilers so close to—but not quite at—their goal?

Looking back, it seems pretty clear: Edmonton was lacking a solid goaltender.

Although they managed to get four different netminders who had each played at least 18 games, neither Jussi Markkanen (37 games played), Michael Morrison (21 GP), Ty Conklin (18 GP), or Dwayne Roloson (19 GP) had nearly enough talent to backstop the Oilers as a productive, sturdy leader.

Roloson led the group with a miserable .905 save percentage and simply average 2.42 goals-against average—nothing near the solidity needed to remain a respectable No. 1 goaltender.

Now, fast forward to today, the beginning of the second round of the 2010 NHL Playoffs.

The Montreal Canadiens, the eighth seed in the East, have just come back from a brutal 3-1 deficit against the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals, the favorite from the start.

In a thrilling Game Seven, Montreal's defense and goaltending came through at the end to sneak out of the national capitol with a 2-1 victory.

Backstopped by a stunning three-game performance by goalie Jaroslav Halak, who saved 134 of the Caps' 137 shots in the final three games of the series after not even starting the first four games, the Habs have just pulled off one of the biggest first round upsets in a very long time.

Halak, still just 24 years old, already has a plenty of Olympic experience with Team Slovakia earlier this year.

In Game Seven, each one of his 41 stops were highlight-reel stops. Turning away the superstars stacked up through the Caps' lineup, including two-time NHL scoring leader Alexander Ovechkin, playmaking specialist Niklas Backstrom, all-around scorer Alexander Semin, offensive defenseman and power-play specialist Mike Green, and plenty more stars, Halak proved his worth over and over again.

While the defensemen in front of him kept as many shots as they could off net, blocking or deflecting over 50 on their own, Halak still was forced to be brilliant under pressure, and certainly lived up to the cause.

In just 24 hours, he's turned the Habs' highly covered goaltender controversy (previously between Halak and Carey Price) into a pure one-man show. He earned rave reviews around the NHL unlike any other up-and-coming postseason goalie since Cam Ward. 

And, while it still may be just the end of the first round, I see a lot of potential in these eighth-seeded Canadiens.

Stanley Cup-winning potential, perhaps.

Call me crazy?

Just compare them to the Edmonton Oilers in Halak's first year in the NHL farm system, 2005-2006, who had everything they needed to win it all despite coming from the last playoff slot...except one thing: goaltender.

In the end, their goalie instability couldn't quite hold up to the likes of 'Canes netminder Cam Ward, who had just taken over as starter in the first round of that year.

The same Cam Ward who is now is in danger of losing his status of "Best Goaltender to Emerge in The Playoffs" to...Jaroslav Halak.

The same Jaroslav Halak who, after performing brilliant save followed by brilliant save, might just be hoisting the Stanley Cup in a month or so if he can play as...well, if he can play as fantastic as we just saw him play.

 

Mark Jones is currently Bleacher Report's featured columnist and community leader for the Carolina Hurricanes as well as an avid hockey follower around the NHL. In his 20 months so far with the site, he has written over 190 articles and received over 130,000 total reads.

Visit his profile to read more.

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