Quietly, Huet playing his way to big pay day

 

It would be easy for Montreal Canadiens goalie Cristobal Huet to enjoy the last laugh and point fingers. And, considering he’s eligible to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, perhaps he will eventually chuckle — all the way to the bank.

 
 
 
 
MONTREAL— It would be easy for Montreal Canadiens goalie Cristobal Huet to enjoy the last laugh and point fingers. And, considering he’s eligible to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, perhaps he will eventually chuckle — all the way to the bank.

In January, the Canadiens enjoyed their most prosperous month of her season, winning eight of 12 games. And it was veteran goaltender Huet, 32, who helped carry them. Huet, named the National Hockey League’s third star — behind Washington superstar Alex Ovechkin and Nashville forward J.P. Dumont — for the month, posted an 8-2-1 record along with a 2.40 average and one shutout in 11 January games.

Huet will make his 11th consecutive start this afternoon, when the Canadiens entertain the slumping New York Islanders at the Bell Centre. And don’t be surprised if Huet gets the call again Sunday, when Montreal entertains the New York Rangers in another matinee.

With top goaltending prospect Carey Price in the minors and backup Jaroslav Halak, one of last season’s surprises, seemingly forgotten, the Canadiens appear content to ride Huet as far as he can take them. He has appeared in 32 games this season, including 14 of the last 15 and 16 of 18.

“There’s definitely not much to think about. You just go out and try to play better and better,” Huet said Friday. “Obviously the race is tight, and it’s fun to play when there’s a lot on the line.”

With 30 regular-season games remaining, the native of France seems virtually certain to surpass the career-high 42 games he appeared in last season — a year in which he missed 20 games with a hamstring injury. If Huet proves to be resilient enough to handle this heavy workload, the Canadiens might go deep into the playoffs. And Huet, earning $2.75-million US this season, will be even more richly rewarded.

“He has played really well,” Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau understated. “He has prepared himself well. It’s a good mix. We know what he needs to get ready and he knows what he has to do.”

Huet began the season as Montreal’s starter, but Price — who the Canadiens made the fifth overall pick in the 2005 NHL draft — also played impressively when called upon. And Price, a 20-year-old rookie, appeared to grab everyone’s attention with each sterling performance. Price undoubtedly is the organization’s netminder of the future, but his play began to falter and he was demoted to Hamilton, the team’s American Hockey League affiliate, in early January to play more regularly and restore his confidence.

The unassuming Huet, meanwhile, took everything in stride.

“Carey’s a great goalie and has a great future. I understand the organization’s standpoint,” he said quietly.

“I’m just trying to play well and prove to myself I can be an elite goalie.”

If Huet is battling his own personal demons, as he claims, it remains obvious he has his teammates’ confidence as they prepare for the stretch run to the post-season.

“It’s amazing to think people wanted Carey Price as the starter at the beginning of the season,” winger Christopher Higgins said. “Carey’s going to be unbelievable … but Huet’s great. We love him in the locker. He’s humble and gets up for games. He’s so competitive, he hates to even give up one goal.

“He’s playing himself into a lot of money, and deservedly so.”

Higgins sees no reason why the Canadiens can’t prosper with a one-goaltender system, much like New Jersey has done throughout much of Martin Brodeur’s career.

“In the playoffs, most teams go with one goalie 99 per cent of the time,” Higgins said. “We’re going to ride Huet and not tire him out. Besides, he’s hot. What are you going to do?”

Keep playing him, that’s what.

hzurkowsky@thegazette.canwest.com
 
 
 
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