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Jaroslav Halak back in Montreal with fond memories

After 2010 playoff series with Canadiens, city 'will always stay in my heart'

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

MONTREAL -- It remains one of the greatest goaltending performances in Montreal Canadiens history, and now, sitting in the stands of a quiet Bell Centre, the scene of Jaroslav Halak's prime, its author was smiling brightly and remembering the details.

"If you look at the shot total, I guess it was the best game I played for Montreal or any other team," Halak said Saturday, a day before Team Europe's World Cup of Hockey 2016 pretournament game against Team North America (6 p.m. ET; ESPN3, SN, TVA Sports).

"It was one of those special nights that everything just went right for me. I'm not saying I had a special feeling during the game, but when the bounces go your way, you know there's a good chance you'll win the game. And the fact we scored four goals helped too."

It was April 26, 2010, Game 6 of the Eastern Conference First Round series between the Canadiens, in their second of three elimination games that round, and the visiting Washington Capitals in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Montreal split with the Capitals in Washington to open the best-of-7 series before the Capitals swept two games back at Bell Centre to put the Canadiens on the brink of elimination, with Game 5 back on Washington ice.

This was Halak's first NHL playoff series as a No. 1 goalie after supplanting a struggling Carey Price in early March, playing 15 of the Canadiens' final 17 regular-season games. Now it was largely on his shoulders to keep Montreal's season alive.

Halak made 37 saves on the road in the Canadiens' 2-1 win, Montreal yet again facing elimination back at Bell Centre in Game 6.

And that's when Halak made 53 saves in a 4-1 victory, a Canadiens regulation-time playoff record. Only Eric Fehr beat him deep into the third period, Montreal by then leading 3-0, Washington captain Alex Ovechkin left shaking his head in disbelief, turned away eight times. Capitals defenseman Joe Corvo had 10 shots stopped, forward Alexander Semin had seven.

Halak made 41 saves two nights later at Verizon Center to send the Capitals packing, before carrying the Canadiens to a seven-game victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round. Montreal finally bowed out in five games to the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference Final.

In six games against the Capitals, Halak made 217 saves on 231 shots for a save percentage of .939. A study by the Habs Analytics website ranked him No. 5 all-time since 1971 in Canadiens single-series playoff history.

Where Steve Penney (.974, 1984), two series for Ken Dryden (.973, 1976, and .962, 1977) and Patrick Roy (.940, 1989) were superior by the bottom-line number, Halak's effort against Washington was on another level altogether.

Habs Analytics notes that none of the three Canadiens goalies who rank higher had faced an average of more than 28 shots per 60 minutes. Halak was shelled with a stunning 40.4 shots per game against the Capitals.

"Splitting Games 1 and 2 in Washington was a good way to go home, but obviously losing both of those games at home wasn't what we wanted," Halak said. "Going back to their building for Game 5, we knew what had to be done. We were facing a hot team. It was one of those things; sometimes you've got to be lucky and a lot of times in that series I was lucky."

Montreal would be in an uproar 16 days after that remarkable playoff run had ended, the hugely popular Halak traded to the St. Louis Blues for center Lars Eller and forward prospect Ian Schultz, the Canadiens having chosen to keep Price as their starter.

A little more than two months later, Halak returned to Montreal for a sports-store appearance at a suburban mall. The autograph session was his quiet way of thanking fans for the support they had shown a goalie who'd been the Canadiens' ninth-round pick in the 2003 NHL Draft, Montreal having developed him in their farm system before giving him his start in the NHL.

Organizers guessed a few hundred might turn out. But a two-hour signing went nearly twice that time when an estimated 5,000 fans showed up, the queue stretching the length of the sprawling mall and out into the parking lot.

"That was really special. I didn't know what to expect, coming back," Halak said. "I just wanted to say 'Thanks' to the people. I was thankful for all the memories here and for all of those who came.

"Some guys are more fortunate than others that they can play their whole career with one team," said the native of Bratislava, Slovakia, who was traded by the Blues to the Buffalo Sabres prior to the 2014 NHL Trade Deadline.

Halak didn't play a single game for the Sabres. He was traded that May to his current team, the New York Islanders.

His Montreal homecoming game with St. Louis had come in January 2012, more than a full season after he had been gone, and it was a lovely script. Fans greeted him warmly all night, and Halak made 19 saves in a 3-0 shutout of his old team to earn first star and a reluctant curtain call.

"I remember my teammate, Alex Pietrangelo, pushed me out onto the ice, saying, 'Go out and enjoy it,'" he said. "It was a great moment, that ovation from the fans."

Halak's recognition factor remains strong in Montreal, many fans stopping him in the streets whenever he's here to remind him about that improbable 2010 series against the Capitals.

"I still have great memories of Montreal, particularly this building," he said. "It will always stay in my heart."

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