By Larry Wigge
If there's one thing that you learn in covering the San Jose Sharks, it's that any player they acquire has tons of character. It a priority.
Martin Havlat fills the bill -- with his best performances coming in the big games.
When Sharks GM Doug Wilson acquired him from Minnesota for two-time 50-goal scorer Dany Heatley on July 3, he was looking for something to fit in with San Jose's top two lines.
As it turns out, the Mlada Boeslav, Czech Republic, native, is a perfect fit. The 30-year-old (he turn 31 on April 19) is shifty. He's creative. He's skilled. He's swift. He's solid and accountable at both ends of the rink. And, oh, yes, most of all, Havlat is very, very smart player.
What Wilson likes most of all about players that show character is that he stays cool, calm and collected ... all in time to make clutch move. Havlat has made a career of playing like that. It's like nature.
For the record, his first career playoff goal occurred in 2002, with Ottawa in overtime against Philadelphia -- and it clinched a series.
It happened again in Game 1 against the St. Louis Blues. The 6-2, 217-pound winger is playing with Logan Couture and Ryane Clowe -- two other players filled with character traits -- has just scored his first two goals, including the game-winner at 3:34 of double overtime in a 3-2 victory.
The two goals came at the most opportune time -- raising the Sharks record to 26-11-3 with him in the lineup, while they were 18-18-7 without him because of a freak injury suffered December 17 against Edmonton, when Havlat's skate got caught as he hopped over the boards for a shift change and he immediately crumpled to the ice in pain. Luckily, even though he missed half the season, it wasn't a complete tear of hamstring.
That's why he had only seven goals and 20 assists in 39 games. Havlat actually added five goals and seven assist in the closing 13 games. He was just getting his timing back.
Actually, he hasn't missed a beat -- even though he missed so much time.
"Martin's a real class player," Wilson was saying earlier in the evening. "Historically in the playoffs he's always done well. He's a very competitive guy. He has a great combination of speed and playmaking ... and the finish is something we were looking to add in our top six forwards.
"I don't think he's ever missed a playoff game and this is the time of the year where he really flourishes."
In double overtime, Clowe found Havlat with the winning pass.
"He's great at finding soft areas," said Clowe of Havlat becoming in the high slot.
"I was just trying to get it on net," Havlat said. "You find a way to get a shot through ... and it went in."
Havlat described the play as if it took forever in his mind's eye. That's because he was getting tired -- that the game was getting a little longer than usual ... "My first thought was that it was time to get some rest."
Voila! Just like magic ... the contributions were clutch. It was Havlat's 20th and 21st playoff goals in 68 games.
It came as no surprise the St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock, who said before the series that Havlat could be the X-factor of this series.
"I've coached against Havlat where he was the best player in every game -- it wasn't even close," Hitchcock said of his day coaching at Philadelpha. "He was better than Marian Hossa. So I know what he can do."
"He has that reputation," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "That's one of the reasons why he was acquired. He lived up to it tonight.
"We're very lucky that he had the type of game that he had tonight. It had to be taxing on him. You have to remember that he's only played 13-14 games returning from his injury. To go four-and-a-half periods, give him credit. He managed himself well. He scored some big goals."
Martin Havlat has never had this much fun playing hockey. There were times over the past two seasons when Havlat seemed stuck in neutral while playing for the Wild, who missed the playoffs each season.
I've always felt he was very explosive. He's the kind of player who can change the course of a game in an instant. But his biggest asset is his speed and how he can find an opening and either make a play or create a great scoring chance for himself ... doing all of that at a high speed. Not many players can do that.
His old linemate, Chicago's Dave Bolland said, "He's got sick skills ... with his vision and what he can do with the puck. He's brought that extra level of skill to our line. Honestly, we don't care that people call us, the third line or whatever. With Havvy's skill and speed, he's helped us be dominant."
They say the biggest stars in sports have an elevated intelligence, an awareness of history and a passion to play at a level over an above everyone else. That factor could not be more evident when Havlat, who was well aware of the importance of Bobby Hull's No. 9 hanging from the rafters of the United Center, said he wouldn't even think of asking to continue to wear the No. 9 he had donned in Ottawa.
Thousands of miles could separate a young Marty Havlat in the Czech Republic, but he made it a point to watch and read about the greatest players on TV. It was easy for Havlat to watch, follow and idolize superstar countryman Jaromir Jagr. But Marty also read two of Wayne Gretzky’s books and followed all of The Great One’s how-to tips as a player.
As a rookie with the Senators in 2001, Havlat went to an auction and bid a whopping $1,400 to acquire an autographed Gretzky sweater. The same year, he also acquired a Bobby Orr autographed book and poster.
It's clear that this winger is more than just a hockey player ... and fan of the game.
Martin Havlat was born to play hockey and he got a better-than-average opportunity to hone his skills with the help of his father, Slava, who was a defenseman in various Czech leagues and served at Marty’s coach until he was 14-15. Still, Havlat never really thought about being good enough to play in the NHL until he made the Czech 16-and-under team.
"I was probably the skinniest kid on the team," he said, laughing. "No muscle ... but I could skate and shoot the puck."
Martin was the 23rd pick overall in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft.
"His skills were that of a man already, but he was just a boy physically," recalled former Blues assistant G.M. Jarmo Kekalainen, who was chief scout in Ottawa at the time and called out Marty's name. "He was listed at 178 pounds all season and scouts saw the skill, but shook their heads because he was so skinny. But one of our scouts had gone to see him training afterward and he told us that Marty had been working hard in the weight room and already looked more filled out.
"We always believed, when his body catches up to his skill, we might really have a special player."
Now, 12-plus years later Martin Havlat has shown time and time again that he's got character. And he knows what time to use it.