Jaroslav Halak makes smooth transition to Capitals

March 20

(Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports)

LOS ANGELES – Usually during a game-day morning skate, the goaltender who will start for the Washington Capitals that night faces the forwards when the lineup splits up for certain drills. Not so with Jaroslav Halak.

Every morning during this seven-game stretch in which he has started every contest, Halak faces shots from the defensemen through traffic. Thursday at Staples Center, as he readied to take on the Kings, Halak worked to snare tips, deflections and redirections with big wingers Troy Brouwer and Dustin Penner in front of him making his task as challenging as they could.

It’s an approach that has served Halak well over the last 13 days as he’s faced 202 shots in his first six games with the Capitals. In Washington’s 3-2 win at Anaheim Tuesday, Halak posted 43 saves, many that required him to settle the loose puck in front and manage the game with big forwards in his crease.

That victory marked the most saves Halak was required to make in any regulation game since Feb. 4, 2010 when he recorded 45 in a 3-2 Montreal win against Boston, but the veteran netminder was unfazed by the volume of shots. He was focused on the long-term goal with the Capitals.

“Right now it’s two points, two points are huge,” Halak said Tuesday. He doesn’t speak with reporters the morning of games. “Any point we can get it’s going to be important and we’ll see how important these two points are at the end of the season.”

Throughout his tenure, Coach Adam Oates has preferred to lean on one goaltender as a consistent starter, and as the Capitals make their push to try and reach the playoffs for a seventh consecutive season Halak is in that role.

The 28-year-old has made a smooth transition to the Capitals since being acquired at the trade deadline posting a 4-2 record, .931 save percentage and 2.35 goals-against average in his first six starts. He’s handled facing a higher quantity of shots each night than was typical during his three and a half seasons with St. Louis with ease, learned Washington’s strategies and picked up the defensemen’s tendencies making for few miscommunications.

“He seems pretty calm in there, I think the players get a sense of that,” Coach Adam Oates said. “I’ve really thought he’s done a good job of reading the play and, in a short time, understanding our system.”

Four different goaltenders have started games for the Capitals this season. Until Halak arrived, it was a group exclusive to home grown players Braden Holtby (39), Philipp Grubauer (11) and Michal Neuvirth (11), who went to Buffalo in the deal that brought the Slovakian netminder into the fold.

While teammates never expressed anything but confidence in those young goaltenders, they do acknowledge there’s a slightly different atmosphere provided by a veteran presence in net.

“With Neuvy and with Holts those are guys that have played a lot of games for this hockey club and done a great job. With Jaro here he’s a little bit more established, played a few more games, played in a lot more situations,” Troy Brouwer said. “Just that experience always gives you a little bit of that quiet confidence that he has. For us playing in front of him, I know the guys here had a tough playoff series against him, and can see what he can do in the net. That goes a long way.”

They also respect how Halak has been able to perform well after being thrown into a playoff push from a top Western Conference team after being traded twice in the week prior to the trade deadline.

“He was put in a tough position being traded into the situation we’re in right now trying to make the playoffs, it’s a lot of pressure on everyone but I think he’s doing a great job,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “He’s really a game goalie – he gets it done.”

Halak has focused on the present since joining the Capitals, knowing that his main goal is simply to help his new team reach the postseason. What lies ahead, including when he becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer isn’t a current priority the netminder’s agent Allan Walsh said Thursday.

Walsh said he hasn’t had any discussions with the Capitals about re-signing Halak, who is in the final year of a four-year, $15 million contract with an annual salary cap hit of $3.75 million, and that he wouldn’t engage in any until the season ends.

“We’re not going to approach those discussions until the end of the season,” Walsh said. “It makes absolutely no sense to be talking when a team is on the cusp of making the playoffs and trying to make the playoffs. It’s just not the right time.”

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