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Price's strong play has made Halak deal old news

by Arpon Basu
BROSSARD, Que. -- The release of the NHL's 2010-11 schedule last summer had a greater level of interest in Montreal than usual, because a city full of angered hockey fans wanted to see when this day would come.

The date jumped off the page to all of them -- March 10, 2011.

The legion of fans who felt Montreal Canadiens general manager Pierre Gauthier chose the wrong goalie when he sent playoff hero Jaroslav Halak to the St. Louis Blues in exchange for a couple of players they never had heard of in Lars Eller and Ian Schultz saw this as the day they would get their comeuppance.

Now that it has finally arrived, with the Canadiens visiting the Blues on Thursday, it is practically a non-event in Montreal thanks to Carey Price proving all those doubters wrong and re-emerging as one of the League's top young goaltenders.

In fact, the Blues could shell Price with eight goals and Halak could post a shutout and it probably still wouldn't revive the arguments that took place all last summer in Montreal.

When Price was asked Wednesday whether he was more excited for this game than he would be for any other, he shrugged it off as if he didn't even know what the question was referring to.

"No, it's just another one," Price said. "We're on a roll right now and hopefully we can keep playing good hockey. We don't need to change anything, we just have to keep rolling with it."

He then was asked whether he knew what the true meaning of the question was, and he smiled.

"Yeah, well, obviously Jaro's playing," Price said. "But it's another big game and we need the points. Obviously we were former partners and what have you. But at the end of the day it's just another game."

That may very well be the case, but the game offers yet another opportunity to show how far Price has come since he watched from the bench during last spring's playoffs while Halak was the centerpiece of Montreal's surprising run to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Booed in his first preseason game by his own fans, Price didn't need to be reminded that a significant portion of the city had lost confidence in him even though he had turned 23 just six weeks before the start of the regular season, an age when many goaltenders haven't even cracked the NHL yet.

All Price has done this season to win them over is arrive at this supposed showdown with Halak tied for first in the League with 32 wins, tied for second in shutouts with seven, sixth in save percentage at .924, seventh in goals-against average at 2.31 and third in starts with 57.

Though the comparison may be unfair, Price has outperformed Halak in every major statistical category by a wide margin. Halak sits outside the League's top 20 in wins, GAA and save percentage, though he is 11th in shutouts, with four in 44 games.

Price wouldn't talk about the comparison with Halak, but said he is enjoying his comeback season, as ridiculous as it is to use that term for a goalie his age.

"It's been pretty wild over the course of the last year with what's been going on,” Price said. "It's been rough and it's been a lot of fun. It's just been great this year, the way this is turning out."

Halak just returned from an 11-game stint on injured reserve with a cracked bone in his right hand and backstopped St. Louis to a 4-3 overtime win in Columbus on Wednesday. Barring a last-minute change, Halak should be back in net against the Canadiens.

While Price is not overly excited by the match-up with the Blues, one of his teammates most definitely is, and that's Eller.

The 21 year-old center was selected by the Blues with the 13th pick of the 2007 Entry Draft and played seven games with St. Louis last season.

Then, just as he was preparing to earn his first full-time job in the NHL, Eller was traded for a hero.

"Of course there was added pressure, no doubt about it," Eller said of arriving in Montreal. "I put a lot of pressure on myself, too. People had high expectations for me, I have high expectations for myself, but I'm realistic, too. It's not necessarily (after) 50 games or one season that you can say it was a bad trade, or he's not going to be a good player. There are a lot of games left and hopefully I'll be here for many years to come."

It took some time for Eller to carve his niche under Martin this season, bouncing back and forth from his natural center position to the wing, watching five games from the press box as a healthy scratch and often getting benched in the third period of tight games.

But ever since Martin put him between Andrei Kostitsyn and Travis Moen on Feb. 22 in what became a 3-2 Canadiens win in Vancouver, the Eller line has been on fire.

"Yeah, well, obviously Jaro's playing. But it's another big game and we need the points. Obviously we were former partners and what have you. But at the end of the day it's just another game."
-- Carey Price

Kostitsyn has points in each of the seven games they've played together, totaling 3 goals and 6 assists, while Eller has 4 goals and 2 assists in the same span after totaling just 3 goals and 6 assists in his first 55 games of the season.

"We found some really good chemistry together," Eller said. "Our strengths as players work really well together and we hope we can keep it going."

Eller's last game was the biggest of his career as he had his first NHL two-goal game in a 4-1 win over the Boston Bruins on Tuesday.

The timing of this ascension couldn't have been better, as Eller returns to St. Louis on Thursday a confident player ready to show the Blues just what they gave up when they traded him away.

"It's something I've been looking forward to, but at the end of the day it's just another game on the calendar and another two (points) we're going to try to get," Eller said. "But it's going to be fun. Even though I only played seven games for that team I was still part of the organization for about three years, I still have a lot of good friends in St. Louis. I look forward to it, I really do."

The same once could have been said about the entire city of Montreal, until the exceptional performance of the goalie many of them had given up on made this game a bit of a moot point.
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