The sight of Jaro Halak in the net for the last four games has been somewhat of a culture shock for Bruins Nation after witnessing Tuukka Rask’s protracted stint as the postseason guardian at the door.
There might be even more of an adjustment to come Wednesday if coach Bruce Cassidy calls on rookie goaltender Dan Vladar to start Game 3 vs. the Lightning. If Vladar makes that start, he will become only the fourth NHL goalie in the last 50-plus years to make his debut in the playoffs. No goalie in the Bruins’ near-100-year history ever has made his career debut in the postseason.
But first, there is Game 2 Tuesday night, and the 35-year-old Halak is booked in net for his fifth straight start, following his solid work (37 shots/35 saves) in Sunday night’s 3-2 win over the Bolts that opened the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal.
Halak did not skate Monday, the Slovak stopper getting an extra bit of R&R, and Cassidy made clear during an early-afternoon Zoom presser that he is still assessing how to handle the netminding chores for Games 2-3 on back-to-back nights.
“Too early to tell,” said Cassidy, when asked how he’s feeling about the prospect of rolling Halak in there for the next two starts. “Last night was a busy night for Jaro, I thought, as it went on. He responded well. Took the day off the ice [Monday], so that will help him recover.”
Halak’s first 20 minutes in Game 1 were a breeze, the Bolts able to cobble together but 10 shots and falling behind, 1-0, on Charlie Coyle’s strike with 1:08 to go before the intermission. Tampa Bay was rarely around the net in the first period and forwards offered virtually no follow-up pressure around the crease on their few opportunities.
Had the rest of the night followed suit, Halak likely would have preferred to take shots Monday to keep his rhythm, timing, and puck-tracking eye. But Periods 2-3 were a considerably heavier lift.
The Bolts did not score in the second, but they rolled up 18 shots (to only seven for the Bruins), their confidence and their offense gaining traction with each shift.
The Lighting finally popped in a pair — both by Victor Hedman — in the third period and kept the pressure on Halak to the final horn, with their goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy, pulled for an extra attacker. Halak earned his dough, and his day off.
“Let’s get through the game [Tuesday] night,” continued Cassidy. “It might also be a situation of where [we are] in the series.
“Sometimes you’ve got to look at your lineup and say, ‘OK, do we have the luxury of making any changes? How will it affect us? How will it affect the group, throwing another guy in there?’ I think our guys play hard no matter who’s in there.”
Halak picked up his fourth postseason win in Game 1, surpassing the three W’s he posted with the Islanders in the 2015 playoffs. He set his career high for playoff wins in 2010 when he went 9-9 with the Canadiens, back in the day when they were trying to figure out if Carey Price would be their No. 1. They figured it out quickly. Just weeks after his impressive stint, Halak was wheeled to the St. Louis Blues.
Vladar, a 23-year-old Czech, has dressed as the backup for Halak’s four starts. He’s a bigger body (6-5 to Halak’s 5-11), and agile for his size, but he wasn’t even the winningest goalie this season at AHL Providence (that honor going to Max Lagace, who is also in the Toronto bubble).
For the moment, however, the Bruins feel Vladar is their top tending prospect, which prompted general manager Don Sweeney on Sunday to sign him to a three-year deal (cap hit: $750,000). He remains very much a raw prospect, drafted at No. 75 in 2015 and now with four pro seasons trying to inch his way to a varsity roster spot.
“I think it’s probably a decision we’ll make Wednesday morning,” said Cassidy. “After we sort through the game on Tuesday and see where Jaro’s at, physically. And have Danny prepare Tuesday night. Just say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to prepare like you’re going in the net.’ And if it doesn’t happen, well, we don’t lose [anything] in that regard.”
The most recent NHL goalie to make his career debut in the playoffs was Jake Allen (a relief appearance) with the Blues during the 2012 Western semifinals. Otherwise, in the post-expansion era, Mike Richter (Rangers, 1989) and Daniel Berthiaume (Winnipeg, 1986) are the only other goalies to make their debuts in the playoffs. Both debuted as starters.
In the pre-expansion era, it happened four times: Bob Champoux (Red Wings, 1964), Paul Goodman (Black Hawks, 1938), Earl Robertson (Red Wings, 1937), and Jim Franks (Red Wings, 1937). Goodman and Robertson both debuted as starters, while Champoux and Franks entered in relief.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.