Set your alarms for 6:30 a.m. this Thursday, February 14th, for those of you in St. Louis, 7:30 for us on the east coast, and 4:30 for my friends out in California. Be prepared to call in sick, or use one of ambiguous mental health days because Team USA begins their journey towards a Gold medal, and we’ll get our first chance to see the hard nose, Blues’ style hockey that Kevin Shattenkirk, TJ Oshie and David Backes will bring with them to Sochi, Russia.
One minor detail before you start getting the celebratory mimosas ready for this patriotic, thirsty Thursday morning, is Backes and the rest of the Americans will go up against an unpredictable team in Slovakia, but more importantly, Jaroslav Halak between the pipes.
Halak has certainly heard the roar of his critics this season, becoming almost deafening as the NHL trade deadline looms. But starting Thursday morning, he has a chance to silence the anti-Halakites and prove that he can be a top goaltender and lead his team to a championship.
This isn’t Halak’s first time representing his roots growing up in the capital city of Bratislava, as he led the 2010 Slovak Olympic team to a surprising Bronze medal game appearance versus annual contenders in Finland. While Halak and his team mates came up short in 2010, the 4th place finish was the highest ever for the Slovakians in Olympic hockey competition. Not only was it a statement to legitimize Slovakia as an international threat, but it also put Halak on the map as a clutch, big game performer.
One thing working in Jaro’s favor in 2014 is that the games’ best and most substantial shut down defender, Zdeno Chara, will be logging big minutes in front of his crease. And while the Slovaks will surely be missing injured Lubomir Visnovsky along side Big Z on the blue line, along with Marian Gaborik up front, they will certainly push every country to their limits with their impressive team speed and defensive focused scheme.
Chicago Blackhawks’ Marion Hossa and, former Blue, Michal Handzus will lead the Slovakian team offensively, with guys like Tomas Kopecky and Red Wings’ surprise star, Tomas Tatar, adding the additional scoring punch needed to compete in these Winter Games.
Regardless of names like Chara or Hossa, Halak is certainly the most important name on the roster. He has a chance to prove to the hockey community that he is a top 10 goalie in the world, a tag that would make you certainly think he’s a legitimate starting goalie in the NHL. Also a chance to make hockey writers all over North America eat their doubting words and show that he can take over a game, and lead his team to victory, night after night. Even if he has to take it, in his words to IIHF.com, one day at a time.
Hopefully we can get it together and play as a team… We’ll see what happens. We have to play one game at a time. That should be the whole approach.
And maybe that one game at a time approach is what Halak needs to bring back to St. Louis, and needs to be embraced by the Blues faithful. He may not be a guy who can play 65 games a season, and show consistency from October through May. But that’s why the Blues pay Brian Elliot. He’s (almost) a money goalie. A title that is reserved only for the elitist of elite clutch performers. Legends like Grant Fuhr, Patrick Roy and the ultimate money-maker, Billy Smith.
Since history does have a tendency to repeat itself, Blues fans should be ecstatic that Halak is getting another opportunity at a short, highly significant olympic competition. After the 2010 games, Halak took an eighth-seeded team in Montreal to an astonishing Eastern Conference finals trip, shutting down a couple of guys playing in Sochi, some guy named Alex Ovechkin and his Washington Capitals, and then a guy named Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
This tournament will be exactly what the doctor ordered for Halak’s psyche and confidence. It will give him the stage to show how truly dominant he can be.
So get the somber emails drafted and ready, maybe show up to work tomorrow with a sore throat, that could potentially lead to, let’s say, a fever and the chills on Thursday morning- something that you should really try to sweat out and rest at home. I mean it’s flu season, you can’t be that guy.