By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- On June 17, 2010, the last thing those in hockey-Mecca Montreal thought would happen is their iconic goalie, Jaroslav Halak, would become a former member of the Canadiens. After all, this was the second coming of Patrick Roy when Halak put the team they call 'Les Habitants' on his shoulders and carried them on an improbable playoff ride.
But Canadiens general manager Pierre Gauthier had to make a choice. He had two young goaltenders, and both were restricted free agents at the time. Both wanted to be 'the guy.'
The decision: sayonara Jaro, hello Carey Price; the stage is yours. Halak was traded to the Blues. Former No. 1 pick Lars Eller and winger Ian Schultz came back to Montreal in return.
When Gauthier chose 22-year-old Price over the 25-year-old Halak, it sent shock waves throughout the hockey world. Most of Montreal and the Quebec Province was in delirium, the hockey world was speechless and St. Louis was jovial.
Media pundits and fans called it a landslide deal -- in favor of the Blues. Initially, anyway.
And when Halak began the season 8-1-1 with a sizzling 1.46 goals-against average, a sparkling .944 save percentage and three shutouts, those comparisons drew stronger.
They compounded when Price limped off to a 7-5-1 start, and Habs fans further rationalized that Gauthier’s head should be placed under a guillotine for what they felt like was a disastrous deal from the get-go.
But as Halak's season progressed, the numbers steadily declined. Performances weren't as crisp and as sharp as they were early in the season while Price was quietly earning his keep performing in one of the toughest places to play.
The opinions quickly were starting to sway. Maybe Gauthier made the right decision. The see-saw effect was in full bloom. Maybe the Price is Right.
"I think it's easy to say right now when you look at the season, I haven't been playing my best this season all the time," Halak admitted. "Carey has been playing good. It's easy to say they made the right decision, but you know, I've still got three years on my contract. I just need to focus on this season, finish this season strong and then who knows what's going to happen next year."
Both teams -- and goalies -- will have an opportunity to settle the dispute once and for all when the Canadiens visit the Blues today at 7 p.m. in the first meeting since the trade.
Both goalies are downplaying the game. They want no attention.
Too bad, guys, it's already there.
"I have to be honest, I wasn't really paying attention," Halak said. "I knew we played them in March, but I didn't mark this date in my calendar or anything. It's just a regular game for me. We need to get the two points."
Added Price, "It's just one more hockey game. We're going to play each other many times, hopefully over who knows how long. It's not so much me versus him. It's two teams playing each other."
Halak's first full season as a No. 1 goalie has not gone as well as he had hoped. He has gone 12-16-5 since that scintillating start and is 20-17-6 on the season with a 2.64 GAA and .906 save percentage. He returned to the Blues' lineup Wednesday at Columbus after missing 14 of the last 18 games with a broken bone in his blocker hand and stopped 19 shots in a 4-3 overtime victory.
On the other hand, Price, Montreal's top pick (No. 5 overall) in 2005, is 32-21-6 with a 2.31 GAA and .924 save percentage.
"It's probably the most fun I've ever had playing hockey," Price said. "I'm having fun coming to the rink every day. We’re winning hockey games. We’ve got a cast of characters around here, guys from everywhere who really enjoy playing. It's been awesome so far. I hope it keeps going."
It's tough to really gauge who wins and who loses this deal in such a short span. The Blues believe they needed a franchise-type goalie. They now believe they have one.
"It's just like anything, you can't take a small snapshot and be completely right when there's a volume of work yet to come," Blues coach Davis Payne said. "I think that's in anything ... The scope has to widen out in order to be accurate in those types of statements. I still think the scope needs to be widened out here in this situation."
Halak might be downplaying the game in itself publicly, but it's only natural to have a chip on his shoulder when he see's the Canadien logo hit the ice, one he once cherished.
"You obviously want to play well against your former club, but I think for him, it's going to be even more just because there's a lot of friends," said Blues winger Alex Steen, who dealt with facing Toronto for the first time this season after being traded by the Maple Leafs. "You want to stick it to your friends. It's like playing street hockey and you have the same teams all the time, of course you want to beat the other team."
"We all understand how that one works," Payne said, who alluded Tuesday that Halak would be the likely starter tonight. "I've been part of it before, playing against old teammates or a different organization. There's an added something there and I'm sure that if we get to that point, their team will be aware of it, our guy will be aware of it and we need to make sure we play well in front of him."
Added Halak's former teammate Scott Gomez, "He's an excellent goalie and he was an excellent teammate. I wish him the best for the rest of his career, just not (tonight)."
Halak, who was 9-9 for the Canadiens last spring and helped guide them into the Eastern Conference finals and helped eliminate Alex Ovechkin and the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals before disposing Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, is focused on making the Blues his priority and not worried about looking back.
"It's hockey. It's business," Halak said of the trade. "I'm real happy to be here. Obviously, the season hasn't been going the best, but I'm still happy to be here. Hopefully in the future, I can play better.
"... This season has also been a learning (experience) for me. You also need to be always mentally fresh for all the games we play. It's not anything with the conditioning. That's fine. If you stay mentally fresh, I think that's the key."
Not to be overshadowed is Eller, the Blues' top pick in 2007 (13th overall) who thought he had a bright future here.
"I'm really looking forward to this game," Eller said. "Before the beginning of the season, I had circled the date in my calendar. Even though I played only seven games for St. Louis, I knew a lot of players in Peoria and I spent three training camps with the Blues."
It hasn't been a breakout season for Eller, who has seven goals and 15 points in 62 games, but he's still only 21 years old. Knowing who he was traded for took some toll mentally, especially early on.
"Being traded for Halak put pressure on me," Eller admitted. "I also put pressure on myself to succeed. My expectations are high, but I'm also realistic. I'm aware of the fact you can't judge the transaction based on the short term. And I intend to be with the Canadiens for a long time."
These teams don't see one another often, so the opportunities to clash head-on are ones that players with something to prove will want to take advantage of.
"It will be fun to face him (Halak)," Canadiens forward Michael Cammalleri said. "I love playing against friends. That motivates me a lot. But it's an interesting challenge because Jaro is such a good goalie."
Said Halak, "I still have some friends over there. I don't really talk about hockey or anything. I'm here. That's my past and I need to live in the present and focus on what's ahead in the future."