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Blues' Halak prepared for emotional Montreal return

by Louie Korac
The memories of how beloved Jaroslav Halak is in Montreal have not faded in the 18 months since he was traded from the franchise to the St. Louis Blues.

In fact, the recollection of Halak's last act in Montreal before his departure remains a pleasant one. After all, how often does a player that gets traded get a farewell autograph session?

It may seem odd, but not in Montreal and not for Halak, who earned his adulation from the fans for his part in leading the club to the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals.

Not too long after Halak was shipped to the Blues for prospects Lars Eller and Ian Schultz, he decided to honor a charity appearance to which he had already committed. Just a few hundred people were supposed to get one last glimpse of the hero who played a major role in upsets of the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins in that unforgettable postseason run..

However, in Montreal, few things are as simple as they seem when it comes to hockey.

Jaroslav Halak
Goalie - STL
RECORD: 9-7-5
GAA: 2.29 | SVP: 0.911
Halak showed up for the session to benefit Ste. Justine Children's Hospital at La Capsule Sportive store inside Fairview Mall in Pointe-Claire, Quebec expecting maybe 500 or so fans to attend and fork over $20 for a quick hello and an interview.

Estimates were a bit low, it seems. Organizer got their 500 fans -- times 10.

That's right, 5,000 fans lined up five-plus hours before the session began, forming a line stretched for a mile and doubled by the day's conclusion. Halak stayed 90 minutes past his departure to meet the demand, yet security guards needed to eventually shut it down because of the closure of the mall. 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 Montreal advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals, knocking off the No. 1-seeded Capitals and defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins in the process. Another newspaper depicted Halak as an acrobat from the Cirque du Soleil.

Now, 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, like his teammates, has been on a tear. He is 6-0-3 in his past 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.


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"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 on the season 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 (No. 271) in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft.

"This is once in a lifetime," Hitchcock said. "Ideal situation, you want to support the shutout (by Elliott on 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, out-dueling goalie Carey Price, whom 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."

When 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 and got his game going. Now, he is 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."

"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."
-- Jaroslav Halak

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 to Montreal for the first time, winger Matt D'Agostini is as well. D'Agostini 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 another in the Blues' 4-1 win against 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 still 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 reception he will receive has not been weighing on 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."
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