Blues At Canadiens: Jaroslav Halak Returns To Montreal To Face Former Team

ST. LOUIS, MO - MARCH 10: Jaroslav Halak #41 of the St. Louis Blues makes a save against the Montreal Canadiens at the Scottrade Center on March 10, 2011 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

Jaroslav Halak was a hero in Montreal during the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs. He's playing for the opposition tonight when the Blues travel to one of the toughest venues in sports.

You might've caught something in the press about this: Jaroslav Halak was the Montreal Canadiens' playoff hero in 2010, leading them all the way to the Eastern Conference finals after starter Carey Price showed that his nerves weren't up to the job. He played 18 games for the Habs that season en route to surprise series wins over the favored Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins before the eighth overall seed was eliminated by the Philadelphia Flyers in five games. During the 2010 off-season, the Canadiens had a decision to make: which goaltender will be their starter in the upcoming season, and which would they let go? Fans clamored for Halak to be the starter, but they went with Price, who was their 2005 first rounder.

The hockey world was stunned when Halak was traded to the St. Louis Blues for Lars Eller, Ian Schultz, and two prospects. The Blues let starter Chris Mason test free agency and needed a new one that had the potential to be a long-term, franchise goaltender. The deal was welcomed by Blues fans, many of whom felt that the team had not had a consistent legitimate starting goaltender since Curtis Joseph in the 1990s. Halak signed a four-year, $15 million dollar deal with the Blues. Unfortunately, last season the team was unable to make the playoffs due to numerous injuries - including one to Halak - and finished 10th in the West.

This season, after a shaky start under coach Davis Payne, Halak has been dominant playing behind Ken Hitchcock's defense first, simplified system. He's now 9-7-5 on the season, but that could be easily 11-7-3 if the Blues had given him goal support during two shootout losses to the Nashville Predators. His save percentage has steadily climbed to a .911, and his GAA has plunged nearly a point and a half to 2.29. It's no longer a case of wondering if Halak would ever regain a starting role - now he and Brian Elliott make up one of the stingiest tandems in the NHL.

Halak has faced off against the Canadiens before, making 26 saves on 27 shots as the Blues beat the Habs 4-1 at home last March. Tonight marks his first time back in the Bell Centre, and both the team and the fans are welcoming his return. It's hard to stop liking a goaltender who helped your team plow through the top two teams in the Eastern Conference, and Halak wanted to start tonight's game. After Brian Elliott's 4-0 blanking of the Avalanche on Saturday night, there was some doubt in who was starting Tuesday, but Hitchcock broke his cardinal rule of a goalie getting another start after a shut-out to give Halak a chance to play in Montreal. Said Coach Hitchcock:

It's once in a lifetime. In an ideal situation, you want to support the shutout, but c'mon, the first time going back. ... I think in fairness to Jaroslav, he had a heck of time there. I think it would be dismissive of me to not recognize that.

Halak's excited about coming back to the city's team that drafted him.

It's going to be emotional ... I can't wait to go back in the building," he said. "It's always going to be on my mind. I can never forget about the great times that I had. But (St. Louis) is my home right now and I just want to win for us.

Two points against an Eastern Conference team has been easy to come by for the Blues, who're 7-0-0 against them so far this season. Two points tonight also will put the team back into first in the Central with a Detroit and Chicago loss. Of course, they're playing two fairly easy opponents (the Islanders and the Blue Jackets), so the Blues're going to have to keep pace. They'd also be tied points-wise for first in the Western Conference with a Vancouver loss as well and impressively just one point behind the league-leading Rangers if they lose tonight to the Phoenix Coyotes.


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