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Ex-Canadien Halak plays down first Bell Centre showdown with Price @NHLdotcom

MONTREAL - You can still find people in Montreal wearing T-shirts with Halak written on a stop sign that were the hottest item in town when the Canadiens went on a playoff roll two seasons ago.

Some think the Canadiens made their worst move ever when they dealt Jaroslav Halak to the St. Louis Blues only a few weeks after the playoffs to give the goaltending job to talented but then-underperforming prospect Carey Price.

That debate will be re-ignited on Tuesday night when the two goalies go head-to-head as the Blues make their first visit in two seasons to the Bell Centre.

"I was hoping to get a game here and it's great that the coach (Ken Hitchcock) thought about me," Halak said Monday. "He's giving me the start and hopefully I can do my best and get a point or two.

"It's great I still have fans here. I appreciate it."

Hitchcock has two hot goalies, and Brian Elliott was coming off a shutout win Saturday over Colorado. But this is different from the situation last week when many thought Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo had something to prove in Boston, where he was bombed in last spring's Stanley Cup final, only to have coach Alain Vigneault go with backup Corey Schneider.

It worked for Vigneault, as the Canucks won their game. But Hitchcock didn't hesitate to announce Halak as his starter in Montreal.

"We're in the people business too, and I would look like an idiot not to put him in," said Hitchcock. "It's the first time back for him.

"He was good for the team here and the team was good for him. They both know what's going on. Brian's back for the game against Vancouver on Thursday, so they know that up front. They're both playing really good hockey and they both deserve to play."

The two faced each other late last season in St. Louis, with the Blues prevailing 4-1, but now they are on a bigger stage.

Halak was king in Montreal in the spring of 2010.

First he stole the starting job from Price late in the season and got the Canadiens into the playoffs. After that, he was spectacular as Montreal came back from a 3-1 deficit in the opening round to oust first-place Washington, setting a club playoff record of 53 saves in one game.

Then they knocked off the favoured Pittsburgh Penguins to reach the conference final for the first time since their last Stanley Cup triumph in 1993, only to fall to the Philadelphia Flyers.

There were other big contributors, including red-hot scorer Michael Cammalleri and shot-blocking machines Hal Gill and Josh Gorges, but the one the fans fell in love with was soft-spoken, self-effacing Halak.

When the playoffs ended, Canadiens management was stuck. They couldn't keep both young goalies, but do they bet on raw talent (Price) or keep your playoff hero Halak?

They chose Price, and wasted no time sending Halak to St. Louis for prospects Lars Eller and Ian Schultz.

The outcry reached a climax just before the start of the 2010-11 season, when Halak's agent organized a charity autograph signing event with the goaltender at a suburban Montreal shopping mall. Thousands showed up, with lines stretching the length of the mall and out into the parking lot.

"I was surprised when (the trade) happened, but it's hockey," said Halak. "I'm happy that St. Louis gave me the chance to play and be No. 1."

They were humbling times for Price, who got to the NHL perhaps a little too sure of himself after winning gold with Canada at the world junior championship and leading the Hamilton Bulldogs to an AHL title.

He was a fitter, better goaltender the next season as the starter and with veteran Alex Auld as backup.

"Being able to watch for a while and seeing what I needed to do to be successful at that time really helped," said Price, selected fifth overall in the 2005 draft. "I felt I learned a lot of lessons at that time. Being able to sit on the bench and watch probably benefited me."

With Price, the Canadiens made the playoffs again last season, and he was the one who ruled the crowd and came close to being a post-season sensation. But the eventual Cup-winning Bruins topped Montreal in overtime of game seven of the first round.

"It's never easy to not be the guy in there, but at the same time you learn a lot from watching about what it takes," Gorges said of Price. "And also it brings you a bit of humility ??? to understand that not everything is going to be handed to you.

"His work ethic has been on a whole other level since then and he's been a much better goalie because of it."

And Eller has emerged as one of the team's top checking centres, with an offensive up-side that popped up with a four-goal performance last week against Winnipeg.

Both Halak and Price insist the game is not about them, but about two teams looking for a win. The 21,273 in the Bell Centre seats are sure to think differently.

Chants of "Ja-ro" may be heard for the first time in two seasons, whether Halak falls behind or is standing on his head like the last time he played in Montreal.

"When he left here he was playing really well," said Price. "He led the team to the conference final, so the fans were very attached to him.

"It was well deserved. It's a bit of a build-up, but at the end of the day, it's the Blues versus the Canadiens, not me versus him."

Note: Centre Scott Gomez had a full practice with the Canadiens but has not yet been cleared to play. He took the place of winger Max Pacioretty, who was at home sick.

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