Coach Guy Carbonneau gave Jaroslav Halak the chance to be a starting goaltender, and the Montreal Canadiens backup seized it with relish.
"He's been waiting for the chance for a long time," Carbonneau said after Halak's 34-save performance gave the Canadiens a 3-0 victory over the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday night. "It's unfortunate for someone like (No. 1 goalie) Carey Price, but hopefully Halak will grab the bull by the horns and win us five, six or seven games in a row."
It was a second start and a second win in a row for Halak, who took over with Price struggling through a five-game losing run.
A day earlier, Carbonneau told reporters he had given Price enough chances and that he would ride Halak as long as he keeps winning.
Halak responded with what he called the best game of his NHL career thus far.
"I'm not looking at what's in the newspapers, I'm just trying to focus on the game," the 23-year-old Halak said. "It's just nice to win two in a row. It's been a while."
Tomas Plekanec had a goal and set up one by Andrei Markov, and Maxim Lapierre added an empty-net goal with six seconds left to play for the Canadiens (32-22-7), who have won only five of their last 17 games.
The Canucks (30-22-8) ended a four-game winning run and lost for only the second time in 10 games. Goaltender Roberto Luongo, who faced only 16 shots, had his eight-game win streak snapped, leaving him one short of the team record set by Dan Cloutier in 2002.
"It was really an uneventful night for me - I was pretty bored," said Luongo, a Montreal native who shut out the Canadiens on his last visit two seasons ago. "We played hard and spent most of the night in their zone."
"I thought we played a good game, to be honest," added Canucks veteran Mats Sundin, whose team capped a four-game road trip. "We've been on the road for almost 10 days and we came out with that kind of effort. But it was all missed opportunities tonight."
Halak was the difference as he posted his first shutout of the season and fourth of his career. He got help from a goalpost on a Kevin Bieksa blast during a two-man Vancouver advantage in the opening period and twice stopped the Canucks on breakaways.
But the stop he liked best came in the third period, as a shot got between his pads only to be swept off the goal-line by defenceman Patrice Brisebois.
"That was the best save of the game," Halak said. "I told him thanks."
Halak has been waiting for his chance to shine. He had some bright moments in the previous two seasons, but got into only a total of 22 games. This season, he's already played in 26, but has managed to win more than he lost despite looking decidedly shaky on many nights.
This time, he was snapping shots up with his glove hand and getting in front of everything else.
"The way it's been going the last few weeks, we need someone to come in and be strong every night," added Carbonneau. "He came into a tough situation and mostly, he showed his teammates he really wanted to win this game."
After a quiet first 10 minutes, the game heated up with a fight between Shane O'Brien and Gregory Stewart, then Alex Kovalev took a four-minute high-sticking call, soon followed by a slashing penalty to Plekanec.
The Canadiens killed the two-minute 5-on-3 and just as it was about to end, Saku Koivu stole the puck from Kyle Wellwood, then poked it past Bieksa to Plekanec coming out of the box. The Czech centre beat Luongo to the glove side on the breakaway for his fifth goal in four games since he returned from a two-game suspension for tripping Edmonton's Denis Grebeshkov into the boards.
Overall, Plekanec has six goals and four assists in his last six games.
With the assist, Koivu tied Elmer Lach for 10th place all-time in Canadiens scoring with 623 points.
The Canucks dominated the second frame, but Halak stoned Pavol Demitra on a breakaway. At the other end, Kovalev hit the post while in alone on Luongo.
At 13:27, Alex Burrows cross-checked Brisebois in the face and drew a five-minute major and game misconduct. It took Montreal until 16:08 for Plekanec to feed Markov for a tap-in at the side of the goal for a 2-0 lead.
The third period was all Vancouver as the Canucks had a 13-4 shot advantage, but Halak made a fine glove save on Ryan Kesler and had Brisebois sweep a puck off the goal-line that was trickling in.
The crowd of 21,273 booed Sundin, who opted not to sign as a free agent with Montreal last summer, each time he touched the puck. But the big centre is used to it after a career spent with rivals Quebec and Toronto before moving to Vancouver this season.
"It hasn't really changed from all the years I played in Toronto," said Sundin. "It was a great rivalry, and even before that with the Nordiques. It's one of my favourite buildings to play in on the road. It's always a great, playoffs-type of atmosphere."
It was the Canadiens first home win over Vancouver in four games this decade.
NOTES - Canadiens winger Alex Tanguay, sidelined since early January with a shoulder injury, will be out at least another full week. There had been talk he would return on the weekend. . . Kovalev celebrated his 36th birthday. . . Georges Laraque and Steve Begin were healthy scratches. . . Canucks coach Alain Vigneault had Quebec natives Alexandre Bolduc, Steve Bernier and Burrows out for the opening faceoff, then put them back on their usual trios. . . Vancouver Jennik Hansen missed a second game with a broken finger, while Darcy Hordichuk stayed home in Vancouver, where his wife had a baby boy on the weekend. . . With the trade deadline approaching, there were 13 scouts in the pressbox.
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