CHICAGO -- If anyone knows what it's like during the National Anthem inside the United Center, it's New York Islanders goalie Al Montoya.
Montoya is from nearby Glenview, Ill., and grew up a fan of the Chicago Blackhawks -- whom he will face Friday at the "Madhouse on Madison," where he used to come watch games as a fan. This will be his first time playing in the NHL in his hometown, so Montoya understandably is pumped.
"This is awesome," he said Friday morning. "This is something I've been waiting for since I was a kid. I remember hearing about the Hawks, watching them play on TV, and the city's come a long way with hockey. It's definitely something special to be a part of tonight."
It's also a little pricey. At about $150 a pop, Montoya forked out a pretty penny for 25 friends and family members to attend the game -- plus he knows others who are coming on their own dime.
"This is unbelievable," Montoya said. "I grew up 20 minutes outside the city here in Glenview. This is something I always dreamed about."
He'll get the start for more than just a nice homecoming story, though. Montoya also has played well this season.
"I'm sure he'll be pumped up, but he's been solid for us and poised in the net," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said of Montoya, who is 4-3-1 with a 2.07 goals-against average and .933 save percentage in nine games. "Hopefully he'll have a good game. He might be a little light in the wallet, too."
Montoya was like a lot of young goalies in the Chicago area. He was a big fan of former Blackhawks goalie Ed Belfour.
"Oh yeah, Eddie the Eagle … I tried to mimic the way he worked out there, the way he played so hard," said Montoya. "They didn't always have the greatest teams here, but when he was here he was definitely an icon and somebody that I looked up to."
Being so familiar with how crazy things can get at the United Center, especially when the highly-skilled Hawks are flying around, Montoya knows just how good of a measuring stick his game could be.
"This will be our biggest test, no doubt," he said. "Coming into a building like this and they've lost a couple games (lately), they're going to be desperate. I feel strong. I'm confident. I know what I can do. It's just about going out there and playing my game and playing strong. The team's been playing well and buying into the system. We're growing and we've got to grow fast."
His own growth as a player has taken longer than some anticipated, but Montoya, taken by the New York Rangers with the sixth pick of the 2004 Entry Draft, said the experience in college, the minors and briefly with the Phoenix Coyotes in 2009 made him better. He was traded to the Islanders last February and now feels like he's coming into his own in the League.
"I was one of those goalies who was active and did whatever you could do to stop the puck, even though maybe you weren't in the right position," the 26-year old Montoya said of his younger years. "I really honed my game over the first four years (in the minors), putting it all together. Everything happens for a reason and I'm a true believer of that. My goal was to make it to the NHL, no matter how I got here. That was my goal. Of course there's pressure, but I enjoy it. That's why you play goalie."