In what was truly a bizarre scene in Montreal on Tuesday, a former Hab was treated to one of the smallest, but strongest standing ovations in recent memory.
By the time Jaroslav Halak was announced as the game’s first star, the majority of fans had already vacated the building.
But those who remained stood tall, showering the former Canadiens’ goaltender with the kind of applause normally reserved for the home-team only.
In a city known for its fickle fan base, Tuesday evening offered a rare counterpoint to Montreal’s notorious reputation, as Halak once again skated off Bell Centre ice to a rain of applause, having turned away 19 shots en route to a 3-0 blanking of the hometown Canadiens.
It has been almost exactly a season and a half since the Halak-ness Monster was last sighted in Montreal, leaving many to wonder exactly how warm a reception the 2010 playoff hero would receive in his long-overdue return.
After usurping Price’s starting position halfway through the season and almost single-handedly bringing the Canadiens to the Eastern Conference final just two years ago, Halak was unceremoniously shipped to St. Louis the following summer in exchange for then up-and-coming centre Lars Eller and physically tenacious prospect Ian Schultz.
The decision to go with Carey Price as the club’s top netminder was GM Pierre Gauthier’s first big move at the Canadiens’ helm and resulted in a firestorm of controversy at the time, as fans remained split in their support of the two goaltenders.
Nineteen months later, Price has gone on to secure his reputation as a fan favourite in Montreal. Chants of “Care-y, Care-y!” echo through the Bell Centre rafters on a nightly basis and the ghosts of 2010’s goaltending controversy seem to have been all but exorcised.
However, the tension in the air was palpable as Halak led his Blues onto the ice for Tuesday’s pregame warm-up. Like ex-lovers crossing paths at a dinner party, fans seemed unsure of how to respond to their one-time hero, now donning the unfamiliar blue and gold.
Based solely upon statistics, Price has been the superior goaltender since the trade, having posted 53 wins with a .920 save percentage, compared to Halak’s 37 wins and save percentage of .911. Despite his occasional inconsistency, Price has often been the lone bright spot for an underachieving Canadiens’ team which currently sits 12th in the Eastern Conference.
Halak, on the other hand, currently finds himself mired in yet another goaltending controversy. Splitting time with Brian Elliot between the pipes in St. Louis this season, the 27 year-old Slovakian is once again fighting to prove his worth, this time to new head coach Ken Hitchcock.
Despite the numbers however, momentum clearly favoured the Blues from the drop off the puck on Tuesday. After stopping Tomas Plekanec on a short-handed breakaway opportunity early in the first period, Halak had a relatively easy night, facing very few quality scoring chances from a lacklustre Canadiens team.
Forwards David Backes and Jason Arnott each registered a goal and an assist in the victory, which improved Halak’s record to 7-0-3 over his past ten appearances, after starting the season with just one win in his first seven games.
With long-awaited closure to the Halak situation now behind them, the Canadiens turn their attention to the defending Stanley Cup champions, who they will face in Boston on Thursday evening.
If this year’s club wishes to shake the mediocrity that has taken hold of hockey’s most storied franchise, the time is now.
The Canadiens currently sit seven points back of the Pittsburgh Penguins for the final Eastern Conference playoff position and with injuries continuing to mount, they will need to rely heavily upon Price down the stretch if they are to make any kind of a serious playoff run.
Fairly or unfairly, Halak’s playoff heroics are still fresh on the minds of Habs’ fans, and Tuesday’s return performance will do little to put those memories to rest.
Instead, the team must find a way to focus on the task at hand. With eight of their next twelve games at home, the time has come for the Canadiens to prove that the Price is, and always was, right.