Capitals goaltender Jaroslav Halak finds himself swimming against a strong current of negativity today after deciding not to play against his former team, the St. Louis Blues, in a game the Capitals needed to win to stay alive in the playoff race.
“It’s still too fresh,” Halak told reporters after the Capitals’ morning skate at Scottrade Center. “Maybe if it was under different circumstances, like next year, you know. My mind would not be ...”
Halak did not complete his thought, but it left many Caps fans wondering how a professional athlete could decline an invitation to play in the biggest game of his team’s season.
The saga all started on Monday when Halak indicated he was anxious to play against the Blues, a team that decided Ryan Miller gave them a better chance to win a Stanley Cup than Halak, swapping the two goalies in a mega-deal on March 1.
Three times during his interview on Monday Halak said the trade was still “fresh” in his mind, adding that he enjoyed his nearly four seasons in St. Louis, was unhappy to be traded and had a mix of emotions about returning.
“I played there four years, I know these guys,” he said. ‘We’ll see. Obviously, I’m looking forward to going back there.”
Maybe we misread Halak. Maybe he was looking forward to seeing his old teammates, but not playing against them.
Sometime between Monday afternoon in Arlington and Tuesday morning in St. Louis, Capitals coach Adam Oates and goalie coach Olie Kolzig had a conversation with Halak that made them decide to start Braden Holtby, who was excellent between the pipes while stopping 28 of 29 shots in a 4-1 win.
“I talked to Jaro about it,” Oates said following Tuesday’s morning skate. “Olie and I talked and both of us have been traded. We know the feelings when you go into your old stomping ground.
“It’s not always easy and you’re not always comfortable, at least the first time. We talked to [Halak] and you know what? He just wasn’t a hundred percent comfortable. Unfortunately, this time of year and where we’re at, we can’t afford that.”
For the record, when Oates faced the Blues for the first time after being traded to Boston midway through the 1991-92 season he finished a minus-3 with no points. And when Kolzig faced the Capitals for the first time after signing with the Tampa Bay Lightning in November 2008, he allowed three goals in the first period [read Kolzig's post-game comments here] en route to a 4-2 loss against the team for which he played 16 seasons.
Apparently, those two experiences played a role in the Caps’ decision to turn to Holtby.
It should be noted that just a week ago Miller did not face his former team, the Buffalo Sabres, when the two teams met in St. Louis for the first time following Miller’s trade to St. Louis. At that time, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock also spoke with his goalie.
"We talked to [Miller] and said, 'Listen, do you have to play against Buffalo? Does it matter?'" Hitchcock said. "He didn't care one way or the other, so it set up our schedule nicely for what we wanted to do right to the end of the season.”
Would Hitchcock have handled it differently if the Blues were fighting for their playoff lives? We’ll never know.
To me, the real question is how will Tuesday night’s goalie-gate impact Oates’ decisions in the final three games of the Capitals’ regular season. With back-to-back games against the Carolina Hurricanes and Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday and Friday and a season-ending home game on Sunday, will Halak get another start for the Capitals?
Or, will the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent leave Washington as the goalie who didn’t want to play in his team’s most important game of the season?