PITTSBURGH — Jaroslav Halak’s odyssey back to the NHL after nearly three months in AHL exile consisted of numerous bus rides, one last quick jaunt from Albany to Bridgeport and a trip back home to Long Island before an early-morning flight here to rejoin the Islanders and possibly play a key role in their push for a playoff berth.
“It wasn’t the best situation for me, but I just wanted to make the best out of my time there,” said Halak, who could very well get the start in goal on Friday night when the Islanders face the Penguins. It would be Halak’s first appearance for the Isles since Dec. 29, when he was pulled after allowing four goals in less than two periods in Minnesota.
He was placed on waivers the next day and sent to Bridgeport after clearing, which finally alleviated the three-goaltender logjam that left none of the Islanders’ goalies happy.
In Halak’s absence, Jack Capuano was replaced by Doug Weight behind the bench, Thomas Greiss signed a three-year extension and J-F Berube faltered as the backup, prompting general manager Garth Snow and Weight to summon Halak after a successful run in the minors.
“He’s been playing great,” Weight said. “He went down, found his game. Talking to Brent [Thompson, the Bridgeport coach], and Brent’s a no-nonsense guy, every report I got was about how great his attitude was, how great he’s playing. He’s a pro. Gone down, did what he had to do and we’re excited to have him back.”
Halak departed the Islanders with a .904 save percentage and only six wins in 20 starts. He had a .925 save percentage and was 17-7-3 for Bridgeport.
The Bruins, who lost to the Lightning on Thursday night, are two points ahead of the Islanders for the last Eastern Conference playoff spot, and the Isles have two games in hand. The Islanders are a point ahead of the Lightning and have a game in hand.
With three sets of back-to-back games among the final 10 for the Islanders, they needed a better option behind Greiss, who started to wear down in making 17 straight appearances, including Wednesday night’s 34-save win over the Rangers.
“Just gonna try to enjoy it, that’s all you can do,” Halak said. “I’m happy to be back in the NHL. Every night for us, for me, whoever is in net, we have to keep getting points. [Friday night] is a big game, home against Boston is big. Our playoff starts now — or, they have been playing playoff hockey for a long time.”
Halak has one year left on his contract at a salary of $5 million, but even at that, there were rumors of trade talks before the March 1 deadline. Snow rejected all bids, however, sensing that this day might come — or perhaps that it should have come sooner, given the hectic schedule since the start of February.
But the Islanders still can make the playoffs and Halak still might be a part of it, even if the Islanders are back to having three goaltenders.
“I have to talk to him and Tommy and J-F,” Weight said. “It’s not an ideal situation, but we’re going to be fine. We’re going to manage it to make it perfect.”