MONTREAL – Jaroslav Halak’s return to the Bell Centre ended with a shutout and standing ovation.
The Slovak goaltender, who became the darling of the Montreal fans during a run to the NHL Eastern Conference final two seasons ago, made 19 saves as his St. Louis Blues blanked the Canadiens 3-0 on Tuesday night.
After the game, his teamates pushed him out for a skate out to centre ice with his stick raised in salute to a few thousand fans who stayed after the final siren, some of them wearing their old Halak Canadiens jerseys.
Then he did it all over again when he was named first star of the game.
”I’ll never forget this moment. It will stay with me forever,” said Halak, who was playing in Montreal for the first time since he was traded to St. Louis after his heroics in the 2010 playoffs.
”They told me to come out and enjoy the moment and it was really great. You don’t know what was going to happen. But in this game it was really special and I want to thank the fans.”
Jason Arnott and David Backes scored in the second period and Chris Stewart added one in the third for the Blues (25-12-5), who posted a fourth win in a row. They ended a two-game road losing run and improved their record away from home to 8-9-3.
The Blues kept pace with Chicago for first place in the Central Division, with a game in hand on the Blackhawks. They return to St. Louis for five games at home, where they are 17-3-2 this season.
It was Halak’s second shutout of the season, the 18th of his career and his first in Montreal since he got one for the Canadiens on April 3, 2010 against Buffalo.
It may have been extra costly for Montreal (16-19-7) as captain Brian Gionta left early in the third period with what the team called an upper body injury. Gionta was in his second game back after an undisclosed injury.
The game was billed as a showdown with Carey Price, the 2005 fifth-overall draft pick who the Canadiens elected to keep instead of Halak.
But Price could not be faulted on any of the goals he allowed on 25 St. Louis shots as the Blues played flawless defence while the Canadiens had 21 giveaways.
”They played the way they were scouted to play,” said Price. ”They had great back-pressure and they rallied around Jaro.
”He played well and that was pretty much it. I’m frustrated right now because of our position (in the standings), nothing else.”
Halak, who admitted to being nervous as the game started, had only two difficult saves to make, both when his team had a man advantage.
Only three minutes into the game, Tomas Plekanec was sent in on a breakaway, but was stopped with a pad save.
”I didn’t know (what he would do)” said Halak. ”I tried to keep my pad on the ice and I kept it out.
”Especially early in the game, you don’t want to have a breakaway against, but I’m glad I stopped it. It calmed me down.”
During a third period power play, Halak was sprawled in his crease but managed to get a glove up to stop Mathieu Darche’s wrist shot from 10 feet out.
”That was a Game 6, 2010 save,” said Darche, referring to Halak’s brilliant 53-save effort against Washington in the playoffs that year.
The Blues have been one of the NHL’s best defensive clubs since Ken Hitchcock replaced Davis Payne as coach in early November and it has benefitted both goalies Halak and Brian Elliott, who is tabbed to start Thursday at home against Vancouver. Halak, who began the season 1-6-0, is 7-0-3 in his last nine starts.
It proved to much for Montreal (16-19-7), which lost for the first time in 2012 after a pair of home wins.
”They took away our time and space and forced turnovers,” said Randy Cunneyworth, now 3-7-0 since replacing Jacques Martin as coach. ”They’re very good at that.”
Neither goaltender was overly busy in a tight-checking affair with little sustained action at either end. It turned on two St. Louis counter attacks in the second frame.
Ryan Reaves went around P.K. Subban and was stopped by Price, but Arnott was there to put in the rebound at 9:51.
A Chris Stewart pass went off the side of the net to Backes for a goal on a low shot at 14:58
At 12:56 of the third, Backes stripped the puck from Alexei Emelin and fed Stewart for a shot into an open side.
It was also a big game for centre Lars Eller, who was obtained in the Halak trade. The Dane was Montreal’s hardest-working forward, but couldn’t find the net.
A moment of silence was held before the game for Ron Caron, the former Montreal executive and Blues’ general manager who passed away on Monday.
Halak faced Montreal late last season in St. Louis, earning a 4-1 win.
Notes: Petteri Nokelainen and Yannick Weber were scratched for a second straight game by Montreal. . . . Evgeny Grachev and Chris Porter didn’t dress for St.Louis.
Note to readers: Updates with quotes, details.