Jaroslav Halak woke up Saturday morning not knowing he would be starting for the Bruins against the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference first-round or that he would be Boston’s No. 1 goaltender for the duration of the postseason.
The short notice didn’t deter him from making 29 saves in a 3-1 win that put the Bruins ahead in the best-of-7 series 3-1 with Game 4 scheduled for Monday up in the Toronto bubble.
Halak’s teammates seemed equally unfazed by the morning announcement goalie Tuukka Rask made to general manager Don Sweeney and president Cam Neely about opting out of the rest of the playoffs to return home to his family. After an average first period, the Bruins got to their game in the final 40 minutes, outshooting the Hurricanes 32-15 and riding a power-play goal by Charlie Coyle, a shorthanded goal by Sean Kuraly (set up by Coyle) and an empty-net goal by Brad Marchand to victory.
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There’s only one way, though, that Rask’s departure and Halak’s unexpected ascension turn out to be anything other than a disaster. That’s if the Bruins, 40-17-10 in Halak games the past two seasons, can still match their 2019 Rask-led playoff run with another trip to the Stanley Cup final.
For one day, the Bruins seemed to rally around the notion that they could move on without Rask. Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said he wanted his players to think defense first early on to give Halak a chance to “get his feet under him” with him playing just his second game in the past five months. That didn’t quite work out because Marchand took a penalty 12 seconds into the game and Carolina landed four shots on Halak (in addition to one off the post).
From there the Bruins found their structure and held Carolina to just two high-danger chances at 5-on-5 (according to NaturalStatTrick.com). Halak made saves on both of them and he got help from a hit crossbar in the second period.
It was a defensive clinic by the Bruins both in their own end and the neutral zone. With special teams providing the offense, even Halak’s gaffe that let Nino Niederreiter score into an empty-net 6:30 into the third didn’t cost the Bruins. That goal would’ve dejected lesser teams, but the Bruins had Halak’s back and used the miscue as inspiration to tighten up their game rather than let it fall apart.
“I know I gave them a little bit of life, but I think we responded the right way. And we kept playing our game until the end. You have to give credit to our guys, just stepping up,” Halak said.
The Halak-for-Rask swap might’ve been just what the Bruins needed to get them to raise their game up to their standards after they looked less than Presidents’ Trophy worthy while splitting the first two games of the series. Things should get even more difficult, if not in this series (if Hurricanes sniper Andrei Svechnikov is seriously injured, the Hurricanes will be short on offensive firepower) then in the next couple rounds.
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Remember how out of his mind Rask played last season, even when the Bruins got loose defensively. In the four-game sweep of a Carolina team that was less deep than the current edition, Boston allowed 24 high-danger scoring chances 5-on-5 and Rask stopped all 11 high-danger shots he faced on those chances. (Rask also got his share of favorable bounces through four rounds last year.) Halak’s high-danger save percentage of .817 was off the Bruins standard set by Rask (.876) and ranked 36th in the NHL among goalies that played at least 800 minutes 5-on-5.
The Bruins can use their desire to prove they can win the Cup without Rask as a rallying cry, but they’re going to do have to do more than be motivated. Halak is 35 and hasn’t been the go-to guy in a playoff run since 2010. To play until October the Bruins will have to open things up a little bit more than they did Saturday, and that will be the real test for their goalie.
Winning one game in the face of distraction and surprise is a major accomplishment, but accomplishing their ultimate goal will take a lot more from all facets of the Bruins’ game.