Monday, January 9, 2012

Halak returns to Montreal for first time since trade

Emotions are imminent for netminder; D'Agostini also visits for first time

ST. LOUIS -- How often does a player that gets traded get a farewell autograph session? Seems rather odd, but for Jaroslav Halak, the adulation received from fans was borderline frenzied when he played for the Montreal Canadiens.

It was supposed to be a simple gathering after he was stunningly traded to the St. Louis Blues for prospects Lars Eller and Ian Schultz. Just a few hundred people were supposed to get one last glimpse of the hero that nearly carried their beloved Canadiens to the Stanley Cup finals in 2010.

However, this is Montreal. It was anything but simple.
(Getty Images)
Jaroslav Halak then -- as a member of the Montreal Canadiens.

There was a charge of $20 per autograph that benefited
Ste. Justine Children's Hospital for the session that took place at La Capsule Sportive store inside Fairview Mall in Pointe-Claire, Quebec. Organizers expected roughly 500 to attend.

Well, they got their 500 ... times 10.

Five-thousand fans lined up five-plus hours before the session began that stretched a mile wide that doubled by the day's conclusion. By the end of the day in which Halak stayed 90 minutes past the scheduled two-hour time, security guards needed to have the session wrapped up because the mall was closing. By day's end, Halak helped raise $22,000.

This is how much Montreal loved Halak. One local newspaper made a depiction of Halak as Jesus Christ after eliminating both heavy favorites Washington and Pittsburgh in the same playoff season. Another newspaper depicted Halak as an acrobat from the Cirque du Soleil.

For the first time since the trade, Halak returns to Montreal, where he will be in goal with the surging Blues, who bring a 24-12-5 record into Tuesday's matchup at the Bell Centre against the struggling Canadiens (16-18-7).

Halak, who has been on a tear himself like his teammates, is 6-0-3 in his last nine starts and couldn't have timed his return any better ... playing by far his best hockey of the season. He has a 1.95 goals-against average and .929 save percentage in that span.

"It is kind of perfect, but we'll see how the game will go ... I can never forget about the great times that I had there," said Halak, who is 9-7-5 overall with a 2.29 GAA and .911 save percentage. "Every game is a different game. One game, the bounces go your way and some games, the bounces just go in. We'll see.

"Obviously if I get the start, I'll try to do my best. It's another game and two points on the line. I had a great time there, but this is my home right now and I just want to win for us."

There's no question "if" Halak starts. Coach Ken Hitchcock wouldn't dare go with Brian Elliott, who blanked Colorado 4-0 Saturday night, when this will mark Halak's first trip back to the team that drafted him in the ninth round (271st overall) in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft.

"This is once-in-a lifetime," Hitchcock said. "Ideal situation, you want to support the shutout (by Elliott Saturday) ... I mean come on, first time going back. I think in fairness to Jaroslav he had a heck of a time there. I think it would be dismissive of me to not recognize that."

It will be the first return to Montreal but not the first game against the Habs for Halak. He beat them 4-1 in St. Louis last season, outdueling Carey Price, who the Canadiens chose to keep rather than Halak.

"It was a great time (in Montreal)," Halak said. "I got traded and we didn't have to go there last year. They came here and I think that was perfect. ... It's going to be emotional, but at the same time, probably less than it would have been last season.

"I still have a few friends (on the team), but when we play against them, there's no friends on the ice. I'm looking forward to seeing some friends off the ice. We'll see how it goes. I can't wait to go back in the building."
(Getty Images)
Jaroslav Halak now -- as a member of the St. Louis Blues.

When the Bratislava, Slovakia native Halak began the season, he got off to a miserable 1-6 start. His goals-against reached a season-worst 3.53 and his save percentage wasn't any better at .835. And with Elliott putting up Vezina Trophy-like numbers, fan pressure began to mount that Elliott should supplant Halak as the No. 1 netminder. But the 26-year-old Halak never wavered, got his game going and is now in top form.

"He parks it now. He doesn't bring it with him the next day," Hitchcock said of Halak's starts. "He's learned that it's over. There was a period of time where it wasn't successful, he'd carry it with him the next day at practice, and it wasn't healthy for him or healthy for us."

Added Halak: "After the really bad start I had, I needed to keep it more simple. ... I needed to have more fun.

"I think the goalie is all about how fast you can forget about bad goals, bad starts you have. Every time we have a bad game, we cannot think about it too much. ... We (recently) lost three straight games and we just needed to get out of it. Same thing with me, if I lose a few games in a row, just get out of it. I want to make some stops for the guys. When they see that the goalie is stopping the puck, they have confidence, too."

Not only is Halak returning for the first time, winger Matt D'Agostini is as well. The Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario native was dealt to the Blues by Montreal in 2010 for prospect Aaron Palushaj. Winger David Perron, who hails from nearby Sherbrooke, Quebec, also relishes trips back home to face the Canadiens.

"I was disappointed when we couldn't go there last year," said D'Agostini, who netted a goal and assisted on one in the Blues' 4-1 win over the Habs last season. "I wanted to get back, but it'll be an exciting time to get back there and see the guys. I like playing against them. ... It doesn't feel as big as the moment I thought it would be. It's just another game. It's just going to be fun going back into the city, seeing the guys and playing in the Bell Centre again."

Maybe it won't be as big a moment, but the calendar was marked.

"It's one I've marked down for a while," D'Agostini said. "... There's always a little motivation, but there's nothing much there. It's part of the business. Guys go to different teams all the time. I'm happy here in St. Louis. I've been here for a while now. I'm just doing my thing."

Whether he's booed or cheered when the Blues take the ice Tuesday night, Halak said the thought never crossed his mind.

"No, not at all," he said. "I don't know if the people will boo me or cheer. It's up to them.

"I will not judge anybody. Obviously they want to win the game and they want their team to win. We want the same. We want to win the game when we go there. That's what we'll try to do."

* NOTES -- The Blues announced on Monday they have signed enforcer Ryan Reaves to a two-year contract worth $600,000 per season. Reaves, who signed a one-year, two-way contract last summer as a restricted free agent, received a one-way deal this go around. He's making $525,000 this season. ... Defenseman Ian Cole is eligible to return to the lineup tonight in Montreal after serving a three-game suspension following a hit to the head of Detroit's Justin Abdelkader in a game on Dec. 31.

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