In the visitors’ dressing room at the Bell Centre stands a round concrete pillar, onto which someone has fastened a whiteboard.
On Tuesday night it will be festooned with large-denomination bills on the occasion of Jaroslav Halak’s return to his former haunt for the first time since being traded to the St. Louis Blues in 2010.
Hockey tradition holds players put money on the board for whoever scores the winning goal against their former team.
So the bulk of the cash will come from the wallet of Halak, a genial Slovak whose performances captivated a city where many shopkeepers still sell his No. 41 Montreal Canadiens T-shirt.
“Probably they’re on sale,” quipped Halak, who allowed that, “It feels a little weird to be back here on the other side.”
Though both the Habs and Blues paint this contest as just another weeknight tilt – Halak called it “a game like any other” – it isn’t, not really.
Not when you consider that Halak once drew 3,000 people to an off-season autograph signing at a shopping mall in the ’burbs.
Not when you consider the wattage of the spotlight that shines on goalies in Montreal.
And not when you consider subplots such as the tweets Halak’s agent, Allan Walsh, sent out about teammate and rival Carey Price’s struggles. (“I thought the comments were highly unprofessional,” Price said on Monday.)
But it’s also true that time has taken some of the sting out of what would have been an unusually emotional encounter had it taken place last season – the one game between the teams last season was in St. Louis, and the Blues won 4-1.
Also, Halak, despite signing a four-year, $15-million (U.S.) deal 18 months ago, is once again fighting for playing time, and may even be the de facto backup goaltender behind former Ottawa Senators netminder Brian Elliott.
Halak, who is 9-7-5 this season, admitted he had a rough start, but insisted he doesn’t mind splitting starts with Elliott, whose gaudy numbers (15-5, five shutouts, .940 save percentage) have him among the league leaders.
The arrival of coach Ken Hitchcock, who stepped in for the fired Davis Payne early this season, has helped Halak, owner of an 8-1-5 mark since the switch.
It may be revealing that Hitchcock turned to Elliott in a pair of recent games against the division rival Detroit Red Wings.
“He’s probably in the same position I was in [in 2009-10],” said Price, who has become Montreal’s uncontested No. 1 after Halak’s departure.
For all the attention paid to the netminders Tuesday, the game features two other players who will be ponying up cash for the bulletin board: former Habs forward Matt D’Agostini and former St. Louis prospect Lars Eller, who came over in exchange for Halak.
D’Agostini, who was traded to St. Louis in 2010, has nine goals this year (after 21 last year), and Eller is one game removed from his finest performance as a pro: four goals against the Winnipeg Jets last Wednesday.
“It’s fun coming back to the building, there’s still a lot of friends I have on this [Montreal] team, there’s a lot of texting and chirping going on,” D’Agostini said.
Said Eller, with a wide grin: “It wouldn’t be a bad game to score in.”
And how much dough is going to go onto the board?
“I can’t say how much, but there’s going to be some,” Eller laughed.