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Can Jaroslov Halak be like Felix Potvin in ’93 and ’94?

When Jaroslav Halak was pulled after giving up five goals in Game 1 against the Penguins on Friday night, I couldn’t help but think about Felix Potvin, the young Maple Leaf goalie during those magical runs in ’93 and ’94.

Halak has already had a fascinating pro career. Like Potvin, he earned his NHL shot after some solid play in the AHL. He has nudged his way into the Montreal lineup in the last two years, just as Potvin moved his way past the legendary Grant Fuhr to establish himself as the number one guy in Toronto. Halak is 24, Potvin, if I’m not mistaken, was only 21 or 22 when he led the Leaf in the spring of ’93.

This season, I was among those who figured Price would be the number one guy in Montreal, and we all remember earlier this season when Halak’s agent posted (on Twitter, was it?) about his guy’s save percentage, which was superior to Price’s at the time. Montreal coach Jacques Martin was likely hoping one of the two would absolutely establish himself as the undisputed ‘number one’ heading into the last part of the season, and I guess Halak was the choice down the stretch, though the Habs barely made it to the playoffs at all.

Halak led off against the Capitals, but soon we saw Price in the Montreal net. Then it was back to Halak, who went on to steal the series as Montreal won three straight to stun the Caps.

The reason I raise Potvin’s name is that I seem to recall that in those playoff runs he would have brilliant moments, some great games, then he might struggle for a game or two.

I don’t recall if Leaf coach Pat Burns pulled Potvin in any of the playoff games either of those two seasons, but even though it was an up and down grind in ’93 for Felix, Burns always started him. Toronto fell behind two games to none against Detroit, before winning four out of the next five. Against St. Louis, it was more of a back and forth series, with Potvin at times being outshone by a young Curtis Joseph.

Similarly, against LA, another 7 game series saw Felix experience his back and forth moments.

But what stands out to me the most is this: It’s not like Potvin played 21 brilliant games in a row that spring. What goalie possibly can? But I do remember Pat Burns being quoted that he would skate around the ice at practice with Potvin during those playoff series, and he basically told Potvin: “we’re the two guys with a target on their back. I’m the coach. You’re the goalie. We have to stick together. Don’t worry about the critics and don’t worry about a bad game. You’re my goalie.”

That approach took the Leafs a long way in 1993 and 1994. They didn’t get to the Cup finals, but they had two great runs and got as close as you can get in ’93.

Jump ahead again to the present. I don’t think any of us were shocked to see Halak struggle in Game 1 against Pittsburgh. After the emotional wringer that the team had just gone through to beat the Capitals, and the high he was on, we all knew he had to hit a wall at some point.

Now the challenge is: can he get re-focused soon enough to help his team make it a series against another elite team? And if he doesn’t do it in game two, will Jacques Martin go back to Price, or will he just go for a skate with Halak?
Michael Langlois' Vintage Leaf Memories Toronto Maple Leaf Hockey blog

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