BROSSARD, Que. – Jeff Halpern was skating on the wing at the Montreal Canadiens practice on Wednesday, but where they may need him most is in the faceoff circle.
The 35-year-old looks ready to return after missing the final four games of the regular season and the first three of the playoffs with an undisclosed injury.
Coach Jacques Martin, true to form, would not confirm that Halpern will dress for Game 4 on Thursday night at the Bell Centre (CBC, 7 p.m. ET). Montreal leads the best-of-seven series 2-1, but is coming off a 4-2 loss at home on Monday night.
”It’s a call we’ll make (Thursday),” said Martin. ”He’s an experienced player who played a major role in our penalty killing. He’s a smart player who brings a lot of leadership to the dressing room.”
Halpern says he has fully recovered.
”I feel good, we’ll see what the coaches decide,” he said.
He skated on what should be the team’s top checking line with rookie centre Lars Eller and veteran Travis Moen, with the slumping Benoit Pouliot looking like he will be the one who comes out of the lineup.
Halpern led the Canadiens with a 56.9 per cent success rate on faceoffs this season and may end up taking many of the draws.
The Bruins have dominated the faceoff dots, winning 55.6 per cent thus far—second best in the post-season to San Jose’s 56.8 per cent.
Faceoff ace Patrice Bergeron has won 65.4 per cent of his 55 draws, while David Krejci is at 55.3 per cent and Chris Kelly at 52.2 per cent. Only fourth line centre Gregory Campbell lags at 41.4 per cent.
Montreal’s only centre not below .500 is Eller at 50 per cent. Tomas Plekanec is at 44.8, David Desharnais 46.2 and Scott Gomez a woeful 33.3 per cent (16 won, 32 lost). Winger Ryan White has begun taking some and is 8-7 so far on draws.
Halpern said rust may be an issue, but if he plays, he’s ready to try his hand at faceoffs.
”You get in a rhythm with faceoffs and, especially in a series, you start to get a book on everyone,” he said. ”I’ve been able to take them the last few pre-game skates.
”It depends on which side of the ice you’re on, who the linesmen are, who you’re taking them against. It’s definitely a challenge.”
He had high praise for Bergeron, a right-hand shot who is one of the league’s best. Part of what prompted Bergeron’s selection to Canada’s 2010 Olympic team was his skill at winning draws on the right side of the ice.
”He’s fantastic taking draws,” said Halpern. ”On his good side, he’s strong, powerful through the circles. And on his bad side he’s always able to get a foot stick and a flat blade on everything.
”Krejci does a great job. (Rich) Peverley and Campbell take them on their good sides so it’s a two-headed monster on that line. We played them six times this year, and Kelly we played against in Ottawa. Things change and you make adjustments.”
Eller said he is still seeking ways to beat Boston to the draw.
”Bergeron’s tough, I don’t think I won a faceoff against him,” the 21-year-old said. ”I have a tough time against righties and they have only one leftie guy in Campbell and I think I won most of them against him.
”But I’m starting to figure out Krejci a little more. I won a couple against him last game.”
The Canadiens didn’t need to win the faceoff battle when they look the first two games in Boston by 2-0 and 3-1 scores but every detail is looked at after the Bruins got back into the series with their victory at the Bell Centre, making Game 4 pivotal for both clubs.
Boston’s top line of Krejci with big wingers Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton was quiet for two games and then two of them scored in Game 3.
And special teams, in which the Canadiens held a clear edge over Boston in the regular season, have not been a factor. Montreal is 1-for-12 on the power play and Boston is 0-for-11 thus far.
What may be more of a factor is momentum, which Boston has a chance to snatch back from Montreal.
”That’s what you try to safeguard against,” said Canadiens captain Brian Gionta. ”They’re going to be feeling good about themselves coming into next game and we need to change the tide.
”It’s that momentum thing, you want to stop it as quick as possible. We still have control of the series and you want to maintain that throughout the series and be able to execute your game plan more.”
With Halpern back, Montreal’s fourth line had Desharnais with White and Tom Pyatt. Pouliot was the odd man out.
Including the regular season, Pouliot has gone 27 games without a goal. His fate may have been sealed after Game 3 when he was benched for the third period. Afterward, when Martin was asked if he was hurt, the coach said in his iciest voice ”No, he wasn’t injured.”
Montreal has lost the last two series in which it won the opening two games on the road _ in 1996 against the New York Rangers and 2006 against Carolina.