While most Habs fans are pumped about Carey Price after his gold-medal performance for Canada at the world junior tournament, they might want to keep their eyes on Jaroslav Halak as well. The 21-year-old Slovak has been lighting it up for Hamilton in the American Hockey League this season and he continued that fine play Monday at the league's all-star game.
Halak stopped 19 first-period shots for PlanetUSA to help keep them in a game they later won 7-6 over Canada on a last-second goal by Ryan Callahan.
"I felt pretty good out there," said Halak, who allowed two goals. "I wanted to stop all of them but there were a lot of shots."
He's made a habit of stopping shots for the Bulldogs this season.
Halak, who started the year as a backup to Yann Danis, leads the AHL in goals-against average (1.84), save percentage (.938) and shutouts (six).
In fact, he's already tied the Bulldogs team record with nine shutouts overall. And he's done that in just 37 career games.
"They are happy right now," Halak said of the Canadiens, who drafted him 271st overall in 2003. "But I have to keep playing like this and winning some games."
Still, he knows it will be a tough road to the NHL.
Montreal is currently using the tandem of Cristobal Huet and David Aebischer, with Aebischer set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. Price will be part of the goaltending mix next year so there isn't a lot of room for Halak.
"I'd like to see myself there," he said. "But it's a tough road, especially in Montreal because they have really good goalies.
"I'm going to do my best and see what happens."
Brett Stirling of the Chicago Wolves was named the all-star MVP after scoring two goals and adding an assist for PlanetUSA.
But it was Halak and Callahan, a New York Rangers pick, who helped secure the victory.
With the game tied 6-6 late and the teams trading end-to-end rushes, Tomas Fleischmann and Callahan broke in on a 2-on-1 on Canadian goalie Curtis McElhinney.
The original shot was stopped before Callahan banged in the rebound with 3.3 seconds to play.
"I knew there wasn't much time left," said Callahan, who has played two games for the Rangers this season. "I just wanted to get it off right away."
Kip Miller, Drew Stafford, Joe Motzko and Erik Westrum also scored for PlanetUSA, which erased a 5-2 deficit.
Alexandre Giroux, with two, Martin St. Pierre, Sheldon Brookbank, Jason Jaffray and Darren Haydar had the goals for the Canadians.
The game was played at an up-tempo pace before 7,839 fans at Ricoh Coliseum. It was certainly more intense than the NHL all-star game that was played in Dallas last week.
"It kept us on our toes, we had a pretty good pace out there," said Sterling. "It's good to get out there and kind of showcase ourselves."
The score was tied 2-2 after the first and PlanetUSA had Halik to thank for it.
After his team jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead, Halak stopped Clarke MacArthur twice from in-close on one shift before robbing Mathieu Darche and St. Pierre on another.
"We might not have had a chance at the end if it wasn't for him," said Callahan. "He came up with some real big saves for us."
The Canadians finally solved Halak at 13:49 when Giroux flipped the puck over his outstretched pad after the goalie had made a nice toe save. St. Pierre tied it a little over two minutes later with a nice deke move on a breakaway.
Canada took a 5-2 lead in the second before PlanetUSA woke up. Stafford and Sterling scored for them before Motzko tied it 5-5 midway through the third.
After Haydar and Westrum traded goals, Callahan got the late winner.
PlanetUSA had more punch towards the end of the game and outshot the Canadians 17-9 in the third.
"The last 10 minutes they controlled the game," said Haydar, the AHL's scoring leader. "I guess they just wanted it a little more than we did.
"They earned it."
Still, there were some post-game smiles in the Canadian room.
"It was not the result we wanted, but it doesn't sting as much when you don't lose points in the standings," said captain Mike Keane.
Notes: Canada is 7-4 in the event since the current all-star format was adopted in 1997 . . . An AHL all-star record crowd of 15,015 watched last year's game at MTS Centre in Winnipeg . . . Canada was without Jason Krog and Daniel Girardi (N.Y. Rangers), Kris Newbury (Toronto), Lawrence Nycholat (Washington), Mathieu Roy (Edmonton) and Zenon Konopka (Columbus), who have all joined NHL teams . . . Planet USA was missing Patrick O'Sullivan (Los Angeles), Brandon Bochenski (Chicago) and Noah Welch (Pittsburgh) for the same reason.