Team Europe's Jaroslav Halak making another surprise star turn

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press/AP

TORONTO -- Jaroslav Halak's career path has not followed a straight line. No going directly from point A to point B. The netminder's hockey journey has been more circuitous, with the odd sharp angle thrown in for good measure.

But just when you are prepared to dismiss him, when a team is ready to turn in a different direction, Halak re-emerges, making everyone stop and take notice.

Like now, for instance.

Halak, who was not even guaranteed a job with Team Europe at the World Cup of Hockey, has backstopped the team to an unexpected berth in the finals against Canada.

"I don't think it surprised me, but I'm pretty sure it surprised a lot of other people," offered Andrej Sekera, Halak's longtime friend and international teammate. "I know Jaro personally very well and have played with him on international levels, and he's been as good as he's ever been. When he's on his game, he's happy, he's smiling, he's doing his job the best way he can -- and it shows on the ice.

"He's one of the reasons where we are right now," the defenseman added. "We just try to make his life easier -- and he's trying to make our lives easier."

After an up-and-down 2015-16 season with the New York Islanders ended with a groin injury, Halak watched as understudy Thomas Greiss stepped in and helped lead the Islanders to their first playoff series victory since 1993.

Greiss, Halak and new Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen were named to Team Europe's roster, and it was fair to wonder where Halak would fit into the goaltending trilogy for the squad, which is made up of players from eight countries.

More to the point, it was fair to wonder whether Halak would end up as the team's third goaltender, a spare part.

Team Europe coach Ralph Krueger told his players their roles would be determined by how they performed in training camp and played in pretournament games. When it came to the goaltending, the decision became an easy one for Krueger. Andersen went down with injury before the start of the World Cup, and Greiss was terrible in a pretournament start against Team North America.

By default or not, the job was Halak's.

All he's done is lead Team Europe to the finals of a tournament in which few expected his team would even be a factor.

"I saw, over the past years, he grew as a goalie and he got better with age. And [in] the games that he played in this tournament, he showed what he's capable of," said Miroslav Satan, a longtime international teammate and now the GM of Team Europe. "I think it's the best I've seen him. He's definitely one of the cornerstones of our success, and the way we are succeeding in this tournament -- he definitely has a lot to do with that."

Halak has an impressive .947 save percentage in the World Cup. And there is a strong belief in the Team Europe locker room that they are capable of much more.

"You got to believe in the player next to you that he will do the job," Halak said after the Europeans upended heavily favored Sweden in overtime in the semifinals. "I think that brought us together. We all knew we had to play better and try to improve every game, and I think it's been working well so far. Making the finals, it's unreal. It's going to be a huge game for us."

He'll have to be superhuman to give Europe a chance to beat Canada. But regardless of what happens in the finals, a best-of-three series that begins Tuesday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN), this tournament has provided yet another opportunity for Halak to reassert himself as a world-class goaltender.

"He does have a history of being able to steal games," said longtime goaltender and goaltending coach Corey Hirsch, who worked with Halak in St. Louis. "And this tournament is perfect for Halak. You can get him focused on a short amount of games, and he can just take the ball and run with it.

"Jaro's a lot better when there's not a lot of pressure on him. When he gets pressured, things happen."

Remember the circular part?

When Halak steps onto the ice against Canada, he'll see Carey Price at the other end of the ice, and perhaps be reminded of one of those turns.

Halak, a native of Bratislava, Slovakia, was taken in the ninth round of the 2003 NHL draft, 271st overall by the Montreal Canadiens. The league doesn't even have nine rounds in its draft anymore.

But Halak eventually got a shot with Montreal, and in 2010 he played phenomenally for the Canadiens, leading them to a surprise berth in the Eastern Conference finals after upending the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in the first round.

He sported a .923 save percentage and fans started sporting T-shirts that featured a stop sign with Halak's name in the center.

But the Habs had to make a decision on the future of their goaltending, and in spite of Halak's brilliance, they dealt him to St. Louis while Price went on to become not just the Canadiens' starter but also the best goaltender in the world.

Price will start for Canada on Tuesday night.

"Obviously, he's a pretty quiet guy, calm demeanor, lets the puck and the play come toward him," Price said of his old teammate. "Those are a couple of things he does really well."

Although Halak shared a William M. Jennings Trophy -- with the St. Louis Blues' Brian Elliott -- for the fewest goals allowed during the regular season, a lack of durability and inability to get the job done in key moments led to Halak being dealt to the Capitals before signing with the Islanders.

He is 31 and under contract for this year and next. By that time, it wouldn't be a surprise if the Islanders went in a different direction and Halak moved on again, fading from view.

But in the here and now, Halak is front and center once again.