Jaro returns to scene of the crime

ken-hitchcock

He was the toast of the town, and if you need to be reminded why, read Dave Stubbs article in the Gazette or look at this video.

But that was then, this is now. Tonight, Jaroslav Halak returns to play goal in the Bell Centre, wearing the Blue Note instead of the CH on his sweater. He was the primary reason the Canadiens stole two seven-game playoff series in 2009, one against the Presidents Trophy-winning Capitals and one against the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins.

However, two points are on the line, and for the home team — riding a two-game win streak for the first time in a month –there is little room for sentiment. Montreal is still seven points south of an Eastern Conference playoff spot in 12th.

Yet, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock has allowed some sentiment to creep in for this game. Normally, after a Blues goalie posts a shutout, he’ll be rewarded with the start in the next game. But after Brian Elliott’s 15-save shutout Saturday over the Avalanche, Hitchcock announced Halak would get the start against the Canadiens in his first trip back to the Bell Centre since his trade to the Blues.

“This is once in a lifetime, first time going back there,” Hitchcock said. “In fairness to Jaroslav, he had a heck of a time there. I think it would be dismissive of me not to recognize that.”

There were reports Randy Cunneyworth would start Peter Budaj tonight for the Habs, but he opted for the matchup of Halak and his old creasemate Carey Price.

The Blues are battling in the standings as well, but their fight is for first place in their division (where they are now) and conference. They finished the first half 24-12-5, and are 18-5-5 since Hitchcock took over from Davis Payne in early November.

Hitchcock has been able to unlock the potential in this club, which has been built from high draft choices and key trades engineered by the hockey department of President John Davidson, general manager Doug Armstrong and senior advisor and former GM Larry Pleau.

St. Louis has been an excellent team at the Scottrade Center. Their 17 home wins leads the league. They just finished a three-game home sweep with the shutout over Colorado (which showed their defensive abilities) and a come from behind win over the Oilers (which demonstrated their character), raising their home mark to 17-3-2.

Now they play a one-game road trip in Montreal — and they’re only 7-9-3 away from St. Louis. “We’ve played very well on the road, but we haven’t seen it come out in wins,” Hitchcock said. “We have to start to see that if we want to be a top team at the end of the day.”

After a shaky start to the season, Halak has played well, having lost only one regulation game in his 12 starts since Nov. 11, with a 7-0-5 record (all those 5 non-regulation losses came in the shootout). But the real story in goal has been former Senator Brian Elliott, whose 1.62 GAA and .944 save percentage are better than Tim Thomas, Henrik Lundqvist and any other goalie who has played at least 15 games.

On defence, the Blues can boast two very good young puck movers in Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk (acquired in a deft trade last year with the Avs), who are each paired with a veteran, Carlo Colaiacovo (with Pietrangelo) and stay-at-home specialist Barrett Jackman. The third pair of Ian Cole and Roman Polak provide steady play and Hitchcock isn’t afraid to give them regular work.

Offensively, St. Louis has a balanced attack. No player has 30 points or more than 13 goals, but captain David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Alex Steen all have 13. Five Blues have at least 20 points and eight more are in double digits.

Backes has emerged as a real leader for this group and Oshie, whose hustle had never translated into good numbers, is now on the way to career-bests.

Getting 23-year-old Sherbrooke native David Perron back after a 14-month concussion absence has given the Blues a big boost up front. He’s gotten 13 points in 16 games.

The addition of two veterans, Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner as free agents in the offseason has also panned out well. They’re providing grit, leadership and Stanley Cup experience while contributing points at a decent clip as third liners.

When Payne was behind the bench, the Blues power play was last in the NHL (Montreal has that honor now). Hitchcock said in his introductory press conference he could fix things in one practice and the Blues PP is now ranked 21st (14.9 percent) having gotten nine goals in its last 26 opportunities.

Watch for them on the power play to initiate everything off the shot, making plays after the puck is shot, rather than passing the puck around waiting for the perfect opportunity. They have the size and skill up front to effectively create havoc and, in Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk, they have two pointmen who can both fire the puck and make strong passing plays.

They’re mid-pack on the penalty kill, 82.1 percent effective. Part of the problem there is they are not a strong faceoff team, 48.8 percent, ranked 23rd, just behind the Canadiens in that department.

Here’s how the Blues should line up for tonight’s game:

David Perron, David Backes, Chris Stewart
Matt D’Agostini, Patrik Berglund, T.J. Oshie
Vladimir Sobotka, Jason Arnott, Jamie Langenbrunner
B.J. Crombeen, Scott Nichol, Ryan Reaves

Carlo Colaiacovo, Alex Pietrangelo
Barret Jackman, Kevin Shattenkirk
Ian Cole, Roman Polak

Jaroslav Halak
Brian Elliott

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