NASHVILLE, Tenn. – When the Nashville Predators acquired Matt Halischuk from the New Jersey Devils this past summer, the trade seemed as much about clearing the way for defenseman Shea Weber to become the Preds' captain and removing Jason Arnott, who formerly held that title, from the equation, as it was about what Nashville received in return.
However, through two games of the second round of the playoffs, Halischuk has been something of a surprise performer.
He skated in only 27 games during the regular season -- playing the majority of his games with Milwaukee in the American
Hockey League -- but he has been in the lineup for all eight games for Nashville in the playoffs, recording 2 goals.
As if it needs to be said, Halischuk scored the game-winner at 14:51 of double overtime to lift Nashville to a 2-1 victory in Game 2 and even this Western Conference semifinals series at one game apiece.
Incidentally, the two goals by Halischuk, 22, are as many as Arnott totaled in six games in the playoffs last year for Nashville and also more than Arnott has in this year's playoffs for Washington. However, Arnott has 3 assists, giving him 2 more points and a wealth more of postseason experience than Halischuk.
In overtime in Game 2, Nashville coach Barry Trotz moved Halischuk up from his fourth-line role with Steve Sullivan and Blake Geoffrion to the third line, as he shortened his bench and Halischuk scored the winning goal while playing with Jerred Smithson and Nick Spaling.
"Matt is very similar to Nick Spaling," Trotz said of the Preds' third-liner. "And they played together in junior (with Kitchener in the Ontario Hockey League). They're guys that really can play different roles. You have a lot of trust in their game. They have a lot of detail. They're very coachable. They understand the game pretty well, so you feel good about what you're getting.
"And in the overtime, I went to sort of three lines of four and just mixed up everybody and give some guys some support. We only had one forward (David Legwand) who had over 30 minutes, which is good, because you never know if they're going to go one period or two periods or three periods or four."
In fact, Trotz trusts Halischuk enough that when Martin Erat, the Preds' leader in points during the regular season with 50, went out in Games 4 in the first round with an upper-body injury, Trotz did not flinch in letting Halischuk skate on the second line with Legwand and Joel Ward for parts of the final three games.
In Game 4, Halischuk scored a goal to tie the game at 3-3 late in the second period before Anaheim reeled off three quick goals early in the third period fora 6-3 win.
Not bad for a player who totaled 4 goals and 8 assists during the regular season and who did not return from Milwaukee for good until late February.
"He hasn't played in the League too long, but he's been around long enough to know what he has to do to be effective and he's very good defensively," said Smithson of Halischuk, who is plus-2 in the playoffs and was plus-5 during the regular season. "I think that's the most important thing. He'll take care of his own end, block shots, penalty kill and he can play from the fourth line to the first line."
The 6-foot, 186-pound Halischuk, selected No. 117 in 2007, would seem to fit the prototype of the responsible two-way forward that defensive-minded teams like Nashville and New Jersey prize.
Halischuk played 20 games, mostly at the start of the season in 2009-10 for the Devils, with just a goal and an assist to show for it. Nonetheless, when he was traded along with a second-round pick on June 19, 2010, for Arnott, he said it took him a couple of days to get used to the idea.
He did not play at all in Nashville until Jan. 16 at Chicago and then in his second game recorded 2 assists against Phoenix. After a stint of 11 games, Nashville sent him back down. He finished with 11 goals and 12 assists in 37 games for Milwaukee.
Some young players can take demotions hard and allow it to affect their play, but Halischuk was determined that his not last long.
"It's never fun going down," Halischuk said. "But I learned a lot coming up for the first bit and it went well and just tried to go down there and do my thing and earn another call up again."
He time came less than two weeks later. Since then, he's been a mainstay.
"He brings energy," said veteran Steve Sullivan, Halischuk's linemate for much of the postseason. "He brings a strong two-way game and I think he's a little bit more offensively talented than people know. I think it's starting to come out. He's been very good in these playoffs and he's scored some timely goals for us for sure."
Halischuk is humble in nature. The game-winner in which he beat Roberto Luongo came off an odd-man rush and was a beautiful wrist shot high to the glove side.
"Just tried to get it off as quickly as I could and luckily it went it," he said. "Great pass over from Spals."