Most backup goalies in the NHL come in one of two flavors.
The goaltender who’s talented enough to make it to the NHL but can’t be a 55-to-60-game per season goaltender, so he winds up as a caddy to a legit No. 1. And then there’s the veteran who enjoyed all the glory of a No. 1 for years but then wants to stick around the league even though he knows he can’t be at his best for more than two dozen to three dozen starts a year.
And then there’s Bruins backup Jaroslav Halak, who shut out the Carolina Hurricanes 2-0 in his 500th NHL regular season game Tuesday at TD Garden. The 24-save performance, complete with a couple of breakaways extinguished and a couple in-tight quick wrist shots rejected, was further proof that at 34 years old Halak probably could still be holding down a No. 1 job somewhere in the league, and making No. 1 goaltender money.
Instead he’s a Bruin, making $2.75 million in the second year of the two-year contract he signed July 1, 2018. It’s impossible to detect anything but satisfaction with where he’s at when you talk to Halak.
“I’m just glad that I’m part of this group because you know it’s a special group,” Halak e said after he became the 74th goalie in history to reach 500 games. “You know we are so close and we keep proving it on the ice.”
Halak does more than speak about loving being part of the Bruins, even in a part-time role. The backup goaltender has so much more responsibility than the No. 1 beyond playing the games. There are pre-practice sessions with injured players on the path back to a return. There are post-practice shootout practices and other shooting drills. Halak never taps out, just keeps working, even though his resume has a Jennings Trophy (shared with Brian Elliott in St. Louis in 2011-12) and a sixth-place finish in the Vezina Trophy voting the same year. Even though he has more than 260 wins and a career save percentage of .917, there’s no No. 1 goaltender ego when it comes to the Slovakian.
“He does it without complaining and he knows his role and he’s always out there, he’s always taking extra shots, early on, later off, and all the optionals he has to go on the ice,” Bruins captain and Halak’s countryman Zdeno Chara told WEEI.com. “You know sometimes it’s easy to overlook the work ethic he has and how he prepares himself every day and for every game. So it’s very professional, and yeah, he does everything for the team.”
Never mind complaining, Halak might actually enjoy all the extra work. It might even be the reason why three seasons after the New York Islanders had the audacity to assign him to the American Hockey League after relegating him to third-goalie status for a stretch, Halak might be better now rather than declining the way many players in the NHL drop off when they reach their mid-30s.
“I just take it day by day and I just try to work hard every day. You know I just try to force them to score on me, some good shots, and try to stop all of them,” Halak said. “Obviously you’re not going to stop all the shots in practice, it’s impossible, facing 400, 500, whatever shots. But I’m just trying to do my best out there and have fun at the same time. And guys, a lot of times it’s a fun process in practice.”
Fun might be a key to Halak’s career resurgence. Winning helps too. And even though he didn’t get off the bench during the Bruins’ run to Game 7 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final with Tuukka Rask playing every minute, Halak said he felt like he was part of the team. In addition to support from his teammates, he’s figured out how to stay ready and stay sharp, knowing that any minute he could be called upon to save the day.
Plus coach Bruce Cassidy, who called Halak “a No. 1 goalie in this league” Tuesday, gives Halak his fair share of starts, making sure he doesn’t grow rust. Halak has rewarded the Bruins with a .922 save percentage last season, .934 this season.
He might have already come to this revelation when he originally signed with the Bruins for short term and short money, but Halak’s clearly made the determination that life as a 55-game starter isn’t all it’s cracked up to be if you have to face 45 shots a night for a team that’s always scuffling to make the playoffs, that doesn’t have the experienced and talented core the Bruins feature, that might actually get a goalie injured by being too loose defensively. There are few places comparable to Boston for a goalie to thrive behind a team that take so much pride in defending, and has the personnel and skill to do it so well.
Whether he’ll stay in Boston beyond this season rather than leave as an unrestricted free agent remains to be seen. But if Halak remains a Bruin, he’ll always be more than just another backup, and he’ll know that the Bruins will never treat him as one.