OTTAWA — Maybe Jaroslav Halak just needed to feel wanted.
First the goaltender was second fiddle to Carey Price in Montreal then got pushed out in St. Louis for Ryan Miller. Nothing more than a rental in Washington, Halak last June heard from a team that wanted to turn the reins over to him and invest in him for the long term.
Now the New York Islanders are atop the Metropolitan Division, riding the wave of Halak’s all-star-calibre play during his franchise record 11-game winning streak.
"This team showed interest in me and interest in signing me," Halak said. "Interest was on both sides, and I’m glad it worked out well."
It has worked out for the first-place Islanders because general manager Garth Snow was willing to trade a fourth-round pick for Halak’s rights two weeks after the regular season ended and even more willing to give him a long-term contract. Halak did his homework on the Islanders, talking to current and former players, and ultimately signed a US$18-million, four-year deal.
The season is only 26 games old, but so far that looks like a bargain. At 14-4-0 with a 2.05 goals-against average and .926 save percentage, the former Canadien has stabilized the goaltending position that has gone through so much recent change and fits of inconsistency.
"Since I’ve been here, we’ve gone through a lot of goalies, and they’ve been quality goaltenders," coach Jack Capuano said. "But to know that we have a couple guys now back there and hopefully we can stay healthy, it’s been a big plus for our hockey club."
Capuano is referencing backup Chad Johnson, too, but the onus really has been on Halak to shoulder the load for New York. The way the schedule sets up — the Islanders only have one back-to-back for the next month — the fifth-year head coach can’t help but want to keep putting Halak on the ice.
On Thursday night, the 29-year-old Slovak beat the Ottawa Senators to break Billy Smith’s franchise record of consecutive victories with his 11th.
"It’s great to see him break the record and he deserves it," Capuano said. "He’s working real hard and he’s enjoying himself between the pipes right now."
Halak has an intense demeanour on the ice, something captain John Tavares notices when Cal Clutterbuck shoots high on him early in practice. Halak doesn’t take too kindly to that.
"I think you can just tell by his facial expressions," Tavares said.
Maybe Halak doesn’t smile too much, but he’s loving life with the Islanders, who are a world away from where they were a year ago. Back then they were losers of 10 in a row during a season in which they didn’t get great goaltending from Evgeni Nabokov, Anders Nilsson or Kevin Poulin.
These Islanders underwent significant off-season changes. Snow signed former Maple Leafs forwards Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin, then a few days before opening night traded for defencemen Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy.
Quite simply, this is a better team all over the ice.
"We just play a good poised game, and we have a lot of depth, so we’re able to come at teams with every line and all our D," Tavares said. "We just want to put teams on their heels. We want to play with the puck, obviously. I think the more energy you’ve got to spend to try to get it back, I think it makes it tough for the other team to generate offence, generate opportunities."
Tavares pointed out there’s "no panic" in Halak’s game and likewise no panic on the bench or in the locker-room in difficult situations, unlike last season. There’s little doubt the Islanders feed off their No. 1 goaltender.
"Everyone sort of plays like Jaro a bit," defenceman Thomas Hickey said. "He’s quiet in the net and I think it rubs off on us. … When any goalie’s playing on their game it makes it really easy on the team."
Things haven’t exactly been easy lately, even as the Islanders have been on a roll. Just four of their past nine victories have come in regulation.
That speaks to some strong play in close games but also to New York’s slim margin for error. Halak plays a part in that because he’s not prone to giving up soft goals.
"He makes every save he should," Hickey said. "You don’t see him making the 10-bell save because he’s always in position, he doesn’t need to."
During this winning streak, which will be on the line Saturday against the St. Louis Blues, Halak has stopped 275 of the 289 shots he has faced (.952 save percentage) and put up a 1.24 GAA.
Capuano said Halak was "dialed in." Some athletes feel momentum building, but not this one.
"I don’t think about it," Halak said. "I go game-by-game. I’m always trying to focus on the game that’s ahead of me. Whatever happened in the past, happened in the past. That’s great. But back to work tomorrow."
Halak’s work never stops. Earlier in the season Capuano and goaltending coach Mike Dunham talked to Halak about managing his emotions, and he has done that.
"I just thought mentally he was a little frustrated, and right now he’s in a good place," Capuano said. "He’s got high expectations of himself, which is good. That’s what you want.
"It’s no different than a quarterback or different than a starting pitcher. You’re the last line of defence back there. I like the fact that he puts that pressure on himself, but how he channelled in a different way."
Halak isn’t out of control. In fact, Tavares called him "pretty calm."
The Islanders have followed that lead.
"The consistency he brings in his game and the calmness he brings, of course we feed off that," Tavares said. "He does such a good job of not giving up second, third chances and swallowing pucks and pushing them off to the side. Both the skaters and the goalie feed off one another, and he’s been great for us."