'An absolute rock': Little-used Halak comes up big for Canucks

Jaroslav Halak stopped 32 shots as the Vancouver Canucks beat the NHL-leading Colorado Avalanche 3-1.

The Vancouver Canucks never had a problem with Jaroslav Halak. It is the bonus in his contract they couldn’t stand.

They tried for weeks to generate a trade market, ready to dump the goaltender in order to dump the $1.25-million bonus for Halak that will count against the Canucks’ salary cap next season -- after his one-year contract has expired and he’s playing elsewhere.

But the appeal of Halak, awful in his only two starts in the seven weeks that preceded the National Hockey League’s trading deadline on Monday, was never enough to make up for dislike of his bonus.

And so, still with the Canucks, Halak on Wednesday played the first game of the end of his time in Vancouver and was brilliant during a 3-1 road win against the Colorado Avalanche.

The 36-year-old’s satisfaction with his performance, and the utter joy of teammates for him, was evident in the receiving line of hugs Halak received at the end of a win that was even more improbable than management’s failed trade mission.

Was it worth $1.25 million? Not yet.

Maybe a sad ending to the Canucks season can still be averted. Because if a team that looked as exhausted and unfocused as Vancouver did on a disappointing seven-game homestand that ended Sunday can go into Denver and justly beat the best team in NHL, holding Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar and the Avalanche without an even-strength goal, a playoff spot must still be at least possible.

Starting goalie Thatcher Demko, who had appeared in 19 straight games, will be back in the crease Thursday in Minnesota as the Canucks continue to try to beat odds and formidable opponents.

“Now that trade deadline is over, I don't have to focus on anything else,” Halak told reporters after his first win since Jan. 31. “I'm here, and I just want to help the team because we are in a playoff push and we need to be playing playoff hockey from now on if we want to make it.

“I didn't know what was going to happen, honestly. Am I going to be moved or am I going to remain a Canuck. Now that it's done, I can focus on hockey and being here and try to do my best whenever I get a chance.”

Under the dire circumstances, it was probably Halak’s best game this season.

“It's been (crappy), you know,” teammate J.T. Miller said of what Halak has endured the last couple of months. “We feel so good that he could play the way he did today. I mean, he was an absolute rock. He was on. You could just tell this morning. He had that aura about him that he was going to be a difference-maker today. And he played awesome.

“We're all very happy for him and he deserves it. It's been a long year. It feels like every time he goes in, we play like crap. So it's nice to put a decent performance in front of him and then when stuff happened, he was there to shut the door. So it was awesome.”

The last of Halak’s 32 saves came in traffic against Mikko Rantanen with 30 seconds remaining and the Avalanche attacking 6-on-5. It allowed Bo Horvat to power his way to an empty-net goal that clinched it.

Brock Boeser broke a scoreless tie with a top-corner wrist shot 1:23 into the final period after Elias Pettersson forced a turnover, and Miller, who won a head-to-head matchup against MacKinnon at even strength, outbattled the Colorado superstar to sweep in the rebound from Tanner Pearson’s shot on a 2-on-1 at 3:15.

Colorado, which leads the NHL in points, is second in scoring and was 25-3-3 in Denver before Wednesday, generated its only goal on the power play at 6:15 of the final period when Nazem Kadri flipped a rebound over Halak.

MacKinnon took the initial shot, one of four he had on a night when the centre’s ice time of 25:36 was more than any Canuck defenceman.

“I was told I was going to match up against one of the best lines in hockey,” Miller said. “Like, that's why I play. I want to be on against those guys. Being out there against them, I know it brings the best out of me. Not all the time are you going to hold that team to one goal. We just tried to rise to the occasion today. We needed a win. We're still not out of it.”

Coach Bruce Boudreau said after the morning skate that the only people who believe the Canucks are finished in the playoff race are outside of the team.

After the game, he said it was the Canucks’ best performance since he became coach on Dec. 5. The team is 23-11-6 under Boudreau and is three points out of a playoff spot, although most of the teams it is chasing in the Western Conference have played fewer games.

“We used the word 'committed' before the game,” Boudreau said. “And every one of them was committed.”

“It seems like the harder our challenge, we play better sometimes,” Miller said. “That was the ballsiest effort we've had this season.

“We had everybody buy in today. When we do that, we win almost every single time. This is going to be an awesome road trip for us; I don't think we're done yet.”

After facing the Wild, the second half of the Canucks’ trip has stops in Dallas and St. Louis. Then Vancouver plays at home against the Blues, before home-and-away games against the Vegas Golden Knights.

The survival of the Canucks’ season hinges on these seven games.

“Nothing's changed since Bruce came in,” Miller said. “We know we needed to win, you know, 70 per cent of our games or more the rest of the season to get in the playoffs. Nothing's changed.

“Right when you start to think you're out of it, you're going to put yourself out of it. But there's none of that in our room. We believe in there. It's going to be hard, but it seems the harder it gets, the better we play and we kind of enjoy that.”

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