Halak's drinking in success

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Canadiens' goalie is at the top of his game

Jaroslav Halak seems in the mood for confession, so it's worth a shot: "What's your greatest weakness, Jaro? Low stick-side? Five-hole? High glove-side?"

"No," the Montreal Canadiens goaltender says without hesitation. "It's chocolate milk. Since I was a kid, I've had to have it every morning. Half a litre now, at home and on the road.

Montreal - Jaroslav Halak seems in the mood for confession, so it's worth a shot: "What's your greatest weakness, Jaro? Low stick-side? Five-hole? High glove-side?"

"No," the Montreal Canadiens goaltender says without hesitation. "It's chocolate milk. Since I was a kid, I've had to have it every morning. Half a litre now, at home and on the road.

"When I started walking, I had a chocolate milk in my hand. When I was a baby, I had it in my bottle."

Halak laughs and leans back in his chair in a Montreal restaurant. He is drinking tea.

"But my bottle on top of the net," he says, "is just water."

He is still laughing 75 minutes later when asked who's his best friend on the Canadiens.

"My glove?" he replies playfully, before saying he gets along splendidly with everyone.

Favourite NHL opponent? He narrows it down to 29 teams.

Halak is candid and engaging and deliciously funny as he speaks about his life's work.

He marvels at the hockey madness of this city, autograph hounds spending hours in the cold in hope of meeting a drive-by player.

"Surely it's easier in L.A. or Florida?" he jokes.

Halak discusses trade rumours and his relationship with fellow Canadiens goalie Carey Price. He talks about his roots in the game, his hockey-card collection, the honour of representing his native Slovakia in this month's Olympics and, yes, the chocolate milk he'll seek out in the Vancouver athletes' village.

Halak, 24, has carried the Canadiens on his shoulders for much of the season, taking a 17-9-2 record and three shutouts into this weekend's final two games before the Olympic break. His save percentage of .927 is fifth-best in the league.

Price, 22, anointed the club's No. 1 goalie at the 2008 trade deadline with the dispatch of veteran Cristobal Huet, has had his struggles. His record stands at 12-17-4, his save percentage at .911.

All season, Canadiens coach Jacques Martin has said he has two No. 1 goaltenders, even if statistics coldly suggest otherwise. But Halak will not engage in any talk about ranking, nor will he hail his own success. He simply wants to play as often as he can, and he's not been given his work out of charity.

Halak's excellent performance has been a bit of a revelation for the Canadiens, their fans, perhaps even the goalie himself. Three times he's played stretches of five consecutive games, going 11-3-1. Five times he has faced 46 or more shots in a game and won each time, pretty much stealing 10 points for his team.

His objective coming into the season was modest: to at least equal the 34 starts he had last year.

"It's been going pretty well so far," Halak said in gross, modest understatement. "But there is still plenty of hockey left. You never know, it might change with one game."

It's unlikely Halak will come unglued with a bad outing or two. He's had a season's pass aboard the Canadiens' goaltending roller-coaster since arriving in Montreal for brief stays in 2006- 07 and '07-08, and he's always stepped off the dizzying ride with a clear head and steady legs.

The goalie says he knew almost from the day he first walked that he was going to be a netminder. The middle son of Jaroslav and Jarmila Halak's three boys, he loved the equipment and the mask; he lived to stop the ball on the street and the puck on the rink.

He admired from afar the exploits of Curtis Joseph, an NHL goalie of similar style and size, while playing in Bratislava's Vladimir Dzurilla Stadium, named for his country's most famous goalie and its star of the 1976 Canada Cup.

And Halak's hockey-card collection, which he's now trying to pad out with a few of himself, was built around goalies. He was 10 when he got the only card he truly wanted - Patrick Roy wearing a plain white helmet mask, Roy's first card after being traded from the Canadiens to Colorado.

Halak is the only hockey player in his family, his parents and brothers Roman, 27, and Miroslav, 17, following his career on television and the Internet.

He sparkled for Slovakia at the under-18 world championship in 2003, winning top goalie honours to go with his team's silver medal. That June, he settled in front of his computer to eagerly follow the NHL entry draft. He turned it off after the fourth round, his name still not called after 136 picks.

The Canadiens finally selected him in the ninth round, 271st overall. He was headed out to play inline hockey when he got the call from Allan Walsh, his agent then and now, to tell him he was the 25th of 27 goalies drafted.

Halak went 94 choices after the Canadiens picked Swedish goalie Christopher Heino-Lindberg, and after other clubs had chosen European 'keepers Konstantin Barulin, Teemu Lassila, Patrick Ehelechner, Eero Kilpelainen, Miroslav Kopriva, Ville Hostikka and Miroslav Hanuljak. Combined, those eight goalies have played not one NHL game.

"I was 18 and I wasn't really the happiest man on Earth," Halak admitted. "I didn't think I'd have a chance to play in the NHL, which had been my goal, my dream, since I'd been a kid."

The surest way to beat his long odds, Halak figured, was by moving to North America. In one year's span from the fall of 2004, he played for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's Lewiston MAINEiacs, for his country at the world juniors, turned pro with Hamilton during the NHL lockout, attended the Canadiens' autumn camp, then went west to join the Long Beach Ice Dogs of the East Coast Hockey League.

Culture shock? Halak polished his English by watching pro wrestling and Family Guy, WWE heels and Brian the dog among his tutors.

He went 10-6 during his first Canadiens stint in 2006-07, experiencing highs and lows that are a hallmark of goaltending - Halak won his first NHL start on Feb. 18, 2007, a 31-save 3-2 victory over Columbus, won his next two, then lost four straight before winning five in a row, including his first shutout.

Halak finished that season in Montreal, having wrestled the No. 1 job from David Aebischer, but began 2007-08 in Hamilton. And that hurt. A lot.

"I got to play my first NHL game for the league's greatest team, so I was really happy about it," Halak said, having now played 85 games for the Canadiens. "But it was frustrating to start my second season in the minors.

"You have to either deal with it or quit, and I'm not a quitter. Ask any goalie in the NHL - ask Martin Brodeur - and he'll tell you the same thing: he wants to play."

Organizations: Montreal Canadiens, NHL, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League East Coast Hockey League Family Guy

Geographic location: Montreal, Slovakia, L.A. Florida Vancouver Bratislava Vladimir Dzurilla Stadium Hamilton Canada Colorado North America Columbus

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