MONTREAL – Ever since losing No. 1 defenceman Andrei Markov for 35 games on the first day of the season, it’s been a never-ending trail of costly injuries for the Montreal Canadiens.
But for the first time since that season-changing moment back in October, the Canadiens are starting to get healthy again.
And it couldn’t come at a better time.
Michael Cammalleri skated with his teammates Friday for the first time since injuring his knee at the end of January, giving head coach Jacques Martin the closest thing to a full lineup he’s had all year.
Neither Cammalleri nor injured power play specialist Marc-Andre Bergeron – who practised Thursday – are expected to dress Saturday night when the Canadiens attempt to extend their season-high winning streak to seven games against the Maple Leafs in Toronto.
But both will be ready to return next week, and Cammalleri can’t help but feel giddy about how well the team is playing and how much better it could get when he returns.
“It’s hard not to get excited about it,” Cammalleri said. “It seems almost like the perfect storm in a way. Our team’s gelling, we’re winning games, and we’re finally at a healthy point right now that we haven’t had all year after losing (Markov) in that first game.”
When Cammalleri and Bergeron return the Canadiens will only have defenceman Paul Mara on the injured list. The team announced Friday that Mara will undergo surgery on his left shoulder Tuesday in Boston, knocking him out for the rest of the regular season and probably the playoffs as well.
Cammalleri was hurt Jan. 30 in Ottawa when his knee twisted awkwardly under him in a heavy collision with Senators defenceman Anton Volchenkov. He said his knee responded well to his first practice.
“I felt really good, it couldn’t have gone better,” said Cammalleri, who continues to lead the team with 26 goals despite missing the last 15 games. “It was very pain-free and I didn’t feel it restricted me much. Whenever they give me that green light, I’ll be ready.”
Martin wouldn’t commit to when that might be, saying it should happen in one of Montreal’s four games next week against conference rivals Ottawa, Buffalo, Florida and New Jersey.
With the Canadiens riding a six-game win streak, there is no reason to rush either Cammalleri or Bergeron back.
But not only have the Canadiens won seven of eight games since the Olympic break, they have completely changed their identity. For most of the season the Habs have relied on their top forward line and lethal power play for goals, while outstanding goaltending handled things on the defensive end.
Since the return from the break, however, the Canadiens have scored 22 of their 28 goals at even strength, players from the bottom two lines have scored 13 of them, and defensively the team has allowed more than 30 shots only three times in eight games.
“We’ve got a balanced attack right now with four good lines which are all pitching in,” said winger Brian Gionta, who missed 21 games earlier this year with a broken foot. “When that happens your 5-on-5 play picks up and you get more 5-on-5 goals. But goaltending’s been big for us, they’ve made some key saves to keep us in it and allow us to win it.”
Though Martin has not anointed him the team’s No. 1 goalie, Jaroslav Halak has been the winner in each of Montreal’s six straight wins. Carey Price last started a game March 7 in Anaheim and spotted the Ducks a 3-0 first period lead. Halak started the second period and shut the door, allowing Montreal to comeback to win in a shootout.
But as hot as the Canadiens have been, the Maple Leafs are not far behind with five wins in six games. When the two historic rivals meet on a Saturday night anything is possible, and everyone in the Montreal dressing room is aware of that.
“They’re playing well, their record has been good lately,” Martin said. “But it’s about us. It’s about where we’re at and where we’re going.”
Right now, it looks like they are going to the playoffs, and this winning streak has allowed the Canadiens to adjust their goals.
Montreal is seventh in the Eastern Conference with 78 points, only one point behind the Senators in sixth and the Philadelphia Flyers in fifth. The Buffalo Sabres lead the Northeast Division with 84 points and hold two games in hand on Montreal, but the two teams face each other twice before the end of the season.
“It’ll be tough to get home ice, but you want to get as high as you can and make sure you’re playing good hockey going into the playoffs,” Gionta said. “That’s the main focus, to be playing good hockey.”