As the seconds wound down at the Bell Centre on Tuesday night, the boo-birds sang loud and clear as the Canadiens failed to win at home for the 14th time this season, falling 3-0 to the St. Louis Blues. But as the Habs glided off the ice, those who had not left stood for a rousing ovation, saluting the man with the highest winning percentage in the history of the Bell Centre, Jaroslav Halak.
In his first game back to Montreal since being traded away to St. Louis after the 2010 season, Halak stopped all 19 shots the Canadiens threw at him, including just seven in the third period. It was only the third time the Blues had ever earned a shut-out in Montreal.
Halak, who has split time this season with Brian Elliot, earned his tenth win and second shut-out of the season.
The Blues received goals from Jason Arnott (10) and David Backes (14) in the second, before Chris Stewart (10) iced it in the third.
Despite a light work load, Halak was steady when called upon, stopping Tomas Plekanec's short-handed breakaway in the first period and then stacking the pads half-way through the third to make this stop on Mathieu Darche, perhaps his best of the night.
After serving as Montreal's full-time back-up in 2008-09, his first opportunity to stick in the NHL, Halak stole the starting job away from an ineffective Carey Price the following spring, leading the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens to their first Eastern Conference Final since 1993.
Halak and the Canadiens took down the top-seeded Washington Capitals and then the Pittsburgh Penguins, before running out of steam against the Philadelphia Flyers. The Canadiens then re-dedicated themselves to Price, sending Halak to St. Louis while his stock was at its highest.
Halak took a step back in 2010-2011, with only one more win than the season before despite twelve more starts, and with his GAA and Save % both falling off slightly as the Blues missed the post-season.
But with Ken Hitchcock's attention to details on defense, as well as the rejuvenation of Elliot's career, Halak has become half of one of the NHL's best goaltending tandems.
While the Blues have responded to Hitchcock, now 19-5-5 under his guidance, the Habs are 3-7 under new bench boss Randy Cunneyworth and have dropped from two points out of playoff contention to six points out since his take-over. That's bad in any language.
And while the Canadiens continue to fumble and stumble down the Eastern Conference ladder, the fans stood and applauded a not-so-subtle reminder of what their team looked like two springs ago. Gritty, determined, and disciplined. A team that lost defenseman like Markov, Spacek, and Gorgesfor parts of the post-season, leaned on Jaro Halak and found success.
And as Halak took a spin around the ice to acknowledge his former city, one could only cast a disparaging glance at those in Bleu Blanc et Rouge leaving the ice and face a harsh realization.
There is no player on which this team can lean. And barring drastic changes, as Halak's Blues continue to rise, the Habs will continue to sink.