He’s too polite to gloat, which is of course one of the reasons he was - and is - so loved.
But the smile on Jaroslav Halak’s face spoke volumes, this was a game the St. Louis Blues goalie wanted badly.
That much was plain from the effort his team provided, and from their reaction after a 3-0 shutout, when they mobbed the 25-year-old Slovak.
Hockey fans in Montreal are known to have a sense of occasion, and so they stood as their former hero saluted the Bell Centre fans with his stick raised.
They remained standing as, prodded by teammates, he made a curtain call as the game’s first star.
“It was great to see that they gave me an ovation at the end of the game, it feels really special and it feels great,” said Halak, whose heroics helped propel the Montreal Canadiens to the Eastern conference final in 2010.
“Usually when you play on the road you don’t come out as a star, but they told me to stay there . . . it felt good to come out,” he added. “Thank you for all the support.”
Halak is accustomed to having to stand on his head to win in the Bell Centre, but other than a couple of eye-catching stops, this was an easy night for him - it would be convenient to suggest that he stole this game, won 3-0 by the Blues, but the plain fact is that St. Louis is simply a much better team than the Habs, and the goalie was mostly a bystander.
Which isn’t to say he didn’t get the party started on the right foot.
With the Blues on the power-play three minutes into the game (Habs winger Lars Eller, the man traded for Halak in the summer of 2010, was in the box for tripping), Montreal centre Tomas Plekanec stole the puck near his own blue line and set sail for Halak’s net.
As he tore in on goal, Plekanec went to his backhand before swerving back to his forehand, but Halak stayed with him and got his right pad down to thwart the scoring chance.
“I was nervous at the beginning. I was hoping to get a few shots at the beginning of the game, and especially when you have a breakaway against that’s not the shot you want to have, but I was glad I stopped it and it calmed me down for sure,” said Halak, who added with a twinkle that the game puck for his 18th career shutout, and second of the season, will occupy a prominent place in his souvenir collection.
After a terrible early start to the season, he has compiled an 8-1-5 record, and there were indications on Tuesday that the Halak of 2010 lurks near the surface. The best example was a third period stop on Mathieu Darche.
It was the first time Halak, who finds himself sharing time with Brian Elliott despite signing a big-money deal after being traded to St. Louis in the 2010 offseason, has returned to the scene of his greatest performances.
With the goalie lying on his side and time to pick a corner, Darche let fly with a shot that Halak somehow snared with his trapper.
You’d have thought the Canadiens would be determined to spoil the occasion. And you’d be wrong.
After squandering their first scoring opportunity, the Habs were soon penned in their own end for long stretches.
If a pair of wins over the slumping Winnipeg Jets and Tampa Bay Lightning gave the Habs a spark of belief, it was quickly extinguished by the significantly classier opposition on Tuesday.
The Blues have enjoyed a remarkable renaissance under coach Ken Hitchcock, who has instilled a hermetic defensive system since taking over from Davis Payne earlier this season that the Habs were simply unable to solve.
The disconsolate Canadiens could only lament their inability to get pucks to the net, crediting “You have to give them credit,” said downcast Habs winger Michael Cammalleri, minus-2 on the night.
Of his former teammate Halak, Cammalleri said “he was as good as he needed to be.”
If Halak wanted terribly to beat his former team, opposite number Carey Price, the man the organization decided to hang onto, felt likewise.
Though he played well, his teammates couldn’t provide the kind of support his former tandem partner enjoyed.
But afterward Price said the fact he was facing the man he fought so hard to dislodge was far from his mind.
“I’m frustrated right now because of our position on that [conference standings]board over there, nothing else,” said Price, who was visibly upset at his squad’s inability to clamber out of 12th place in the East.
They remain seven points adrift of a playoff spot.
Though Halak will earn the plaudits and the credit, Price could do little to break down the Blues’ swarming forecheck and neutral zone strategy, which Hitchcock terms the “five-man gap”.
“We move up the ice as a pack, and make little plays that end up being big plays,” Hitchcock said after the game, continuing on to say “when we control the game on the grind, we’re hard to play against.”
That was an understatement. The Habs mustered only 19 shots, a season low.
The result of Hitchcock’s suffocating strategy was considerable and sustained pressure on the Montreal defence and a lethal transition game, which yielded the game’s first breakthrough.
As Ryan Reaves swept around P.K. Subban with a strong power move, the Habs forgot Jason Arnott, who potted the rebound past a helpless Price, who played well in the loss.
That was all the Blues really needed to give Halak the result he must have craved. St. Louis added an insurance goal on another breakdown when rookie Montreal defenceman Alexei Emelin was caught up ice and Blues captain David Backes fired a shot that found its way through Hab defenceman Hal Gill and Price.
Backes turned provider in the third, when Emelin’s turnover at the blue line sent the burly centre in two-on-one with Chris Stewart, whose wrister gave Price no chance.
While the Blues have now won four in a row and have solidified their hold on second spot in the West, the Canadiens’ win streak stopped at two.
The loss also came at the cost of more than dropped points and dented pride.
Habs captain Brian Gionta, who was playing just his second game after a long absence because of a leg injury, left the contest in the third period after pulling up behind the net.
He skated straight back to the bench, thumped the door open with his knee and jogged straight to the dressing room, throwing his stick, javelin-style, in frustration.
He will be re-evaluated on Wednesday.
As the Habs contemplate the prospect of a visit to division leader Boston, the Blues are headed for a five-game homestand that opens with a visit from the Vancouver Canucks.
Though Halak authored a shutout on Tuesday he is due a quick return to earth: the starting goaltender for that game will be Elliott, who shut out Colorado on Saturday.
“Now they’re even. Elliott starts on Thursday and we’ll go from there,” Hitchcock said.Report Typo/Error