Four years ago, Jaroslav Halak shut down Alex Ovechkin’s top-seeded Washington Capitals in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Now the Capitals hope the goalie will help them reach the postseason.
Bringing aboard a player whose name conjures bad memories for the franchise, the Capitals acquired Halak from the Buffalo Sabres in a swap of goalies at the NHL trade deadline Wednesday.
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The Capitals sent backup goalie Michal Neuvirth and defenseman Rostislav Klesla to Buffalo, which only acquired Halak last Friday in a deal with the St. Louis Blues. Washington picked up Klesla from the Phoenix Coyotes on Tuesday.
The Capitals, just outside the playoff picture at the moment, also received a 2015 third-round draft pick in the trade with Buffalo, which is last in the NHL with 44 points.
Halak starred for Montreal in the 2010 playoffs, when the eighth-seeded Canadiens came back from a 3-1 deficit to stun the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals in seven games. Over the last three games, Halak stopped 131 of 134 shots, including 41 of 42 in a 2-1 victory in Game 7.
"He’s played well in Montreal. He’s played well in St. Louis. And we hope he can come here and play well," Capitals general manager George McPhee said. "He’s a good goalie, and he can get hot."
McPhee said Halak — who can become a free agent after the season — and Braden Holtby will split time at goalie as Washington tries to avoid missing the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
"Both guys’ll start games," McPhee said. "We’ll see where it goes."
The Capitals entered Wednesday 10th in the Eastern Conference; the top eight teams make the postseason.
Ovechkin tops the NHL with 43 goals, and Nicklas Backstrom is third with 48 assists. But Washington’s defense has been a real problem: Only five of the other 29 teams have allowed more goals.
McPhee said none of the available defensemen "moved the needle." So that led him to the 28-year-old Halak, who went 24-9-4 with a 2.23 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage in 40 games with the Blues this season. In eight NHL seasons with Montreal and St. Louis, he’s appeared in 260 games, going 139-81-26 with a 2.38 GAA and a .917 save percentage.
Halak was in uniform for only one game with Buffalo. On Sunday, he was asked about the possibility of getting traded again.
"I mean, anything can happen from now on," Halak said. "We’ve got three more days before the trade deadline. We’ll see."
Holtby is 19-13-3 with a 2.94 GAA and a .911 save percentage with Washington this season.
"We love Braden Holtby. Love his talent, love his character, love the way he battles," McPhee said. "He’s going to be here a while, a long time. There’s lots to like about him."
Neuvirth was 4-6-2 with a 2.82 GAA and .914 save percentage this season with the Capitals. He’s played in 134 NHL games, all with Washington, going 59-41-13 with a 2.67 GAA.
"He wasn’t happy being the No. 2 (goalie), and so we tried to accommodate him," McPhee said. "And we brought in an experienced guy, and I think it’s an upgrade on the tandem, which is what we wanted to accomplish."
Sabres general manager Tim Murray said he’s a fan of Neuvirth’s and thinks a change of scenery will do the goalie some good.
"For whatever reason, he’s a backup there, and he’s just not as important as he wants to be," Murray said. "And I think when he gets to feel some love again, or whatever you want to call it, and has an opportunity, that he can get his game back."
Murray went on to say that in Washington, Neuvirth’s "stats were pretty good right now on a good team, but not a great team."
About Halak, Murray said: "I would have considered keeping him if there were no trade offers that I liked."
To have a backup goalie Wednesday against Philadelphia, the Capitals recalled Philipp Grubauer from Hershey of the American Hockey League.
Washington made two deals Tuesday, adding left wing Dustin Penner in a trade with the Anaheim Ducks, while shipping forward Martin Erat to Phoenix.
As was the case with Neuvirth, Erat wanted to leave the Capitals. And as was the case with Halak, Penner can become a free agent after this season.
"Like Penner, he’s going to be playing for a new contract," McPhee said about Halak. "And they usually play pretty well when they’re doing that."