MONTREAL – Jaroslav Halak was so taken aback that he simply wanted to leave.
With the last remnants of the Bell Centre crowd raising its ovation to a crescendo as Halak skated toward the dressing room with the St. Louis Blues after shutting out his former Montreal Canadiens teammates Tuesday night, his path off the ice was blocked by Jason Arnott and David Backes, who encouraged their goaltender to go take a twirl and acknowledge the roar from the fans.
It was a sparse crowd, with the great majority having left the building after booing the home team for much of the third period of a 3-0 loss -- but the noise generated by the small gathering of fans made the Bell Centre sound like it was full to the rafters.
Then, after he was voted the first star of the game by those same fans, Halak came out for another curtain call.
"It still feels great to see I still have a lot of fans in Montreal," a clearly emotional Halak said. "I had a great time here, especially the last season I played here and the playoff run. I will never forget this moment; it's going to stay with me forever."
For many young fans, the magical spring of 2010 when Halak helped carry the Canadiens from the No. 8 seed to the Eastern Conference Finals was the greatest run of success they have ever seen their beloved team embark on. No Canadiens team since the franchise's last Stanley Cup victory in 1993 had gone as deep, and Halak was the biggest reason why.
Then, just a month later, Halak was gone. No goodbyes. No thank you. Just shipped to St. Louis in a trade for a then-unknown Lars Eller and prospect Ian Schultz.
On Tuesday night, both the fans and Halak got their opportunity to thank each other.
"You don't know what's going to happen from the fans, but to get this ovation was really special," Halak said. "I just want to thank all the fans for the support."
Halak said he had no trouble taking his regular afternoon nap, but admitted that once he woke up the nerves began to set in.
Politely but not over-enthusiastically cheered when his name was announced among the Blues starters by the sellout crowd of 21,273, Halak showed those nerves would not be a factor when he stopped Tomas Plekanec on a shorthanded breakaway at 3:13 of the first period, setting the stage for his 19-save shutout of his former team.
"Especially early in the game, you don't want to have a breakaway against," Halak said. "I'm glad I stopped it and it calmed me down."
It was the first shutout by the Blues in Montreal since Wayne Stephenson was in goal for a 5-0 victory at the Forum on Nov. 10, 1973 -- and just the 14th in 62 regular-season visits to Montreal for the Blues since they entered the NHL in 1967.
The evening began with a moment of silence for Ron "The Professor" Caron, a former scout and assistant GM in Montreal and GM for 11 years in St. Louis, who passed away Tuesday morning.
That was followed by Carey Price, Halak's former running mate, receiving the Molson Cup for garnering the most three star selections in December -- an odd occasion considering this was Montreal's third home game of the month of January.
But it became Halak's night from that point forward -- he earned his second shutout of the season and ran his record against his former team to 2-0-0 after a 4-1 win in St. Louis last season.
Though he lost the showdown with the man who stole his starting job two seasons ago, Price was hardly to blame on a night his teammates generated a season-low 19 shots on goal and allowed the Blues to roam freely in the Canadiens' end.
"They played the way they were scouted out to play," Price said. "They played very well defensively, they had great back pressure and they rallied around Jaro. He played well, and that was pretty much it."
While the dramatic setting was perfectly staged for Halak, this was a team shutout if ever there was one. Aside from that early save on Plekanec and a handful of other opportunities, the Blues denied the Canadiens much of anything in terms of quality scoring chances to earn the team's second consecutive shutout; Brian Elliott got one in 4-0 win against the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday.
Backes and Chris Stewart each had a goal and an assist while Arnott also scored to get the Blues (25-12-5) their fourth straight win, improving their record under coach Ken Hitchcock to a 19-5-5. But their record on the road under Hitchcock improved to just 5-3-3 overall and 2-3-2 in their last seven, so the effort in Montreal was encouraging to Stewart.
"We definitely wanted to get back to our game on the road here," he said. "Knowing this was a big night for Jaro and he's had this circled on his calendar for a long time, no better than to do it here in Montreal."
The victory coupled with the Detroit Red Wings 5-1 loss on Long Island meant the Blues took over first place in the tough Central Division to sit second in the Western Conference standings.
Meanwhile, the Canadiens (16-19-7) saw the unlikely prospect of making a fifth consecutive playoff appearance slip further away with the loss.
"I'm frustrated right now because of our positioning on that board over there, nothing else," Price said, pointing at the conference standings board in the dressing room before walking away angrily.
After Halak had allowed the game to remain scoreless, Arnott opened the scoring at 9:51 of the first by burying a rebound after a strong rush to the net by Ryan Reaves was stopped by Price.
Backes made it 2-0 at 14:58 with his 14th of the season, grabbing a rebound of a sharp angle Stewart shot and using Canadiens defenseman Hal Gill as a perfect screen to beat Price cleanly to the short side.
The Canadiens had their opportunities in the second period, outshooting the Blues 8-5. But the problem was 12 of the Canadiens shot attempts in the period were either blocked (six) or missed the net (six). Defenseman P.K. Subban was the guiltiest party with six shot attempts through 40 minutes -- none of which hit the net.
Stewart iced the game at 12:56 of the third period after Backes picked the pocket of Canadiens defenseman Alexei Emelin and fed him with a perfect saucer pass for his 10th of the season and third in four games.
The final seven minutes of regulation saw a frustrated crowd boo the home team after Hitchcock's Blues played a perfect road game, bottling up the Canadiens at every turn.