MONTREAL – The Montreal Canadiens’ new year’s resolution was obvious – win more games at home.
The Canadiens averted their usual holiday season disaster by going 3-1-2 on a road stretch that started Dec. 20 in Washington and ended Dec. 30 against the Rangers in New York.
Now they face three games at home – where they are a weak 6-7-4 this season – beginning Thursday night against the struggling Tampa Bay Lightning.
“That’s what we talked about – we’re hoping we turn things around at home,” winger Chris Higgins said Wednesday. “We’ve got to start playing at home the way we do on the road.
“We have to start getting results. We don’t want to hear it from the fans anymore. We’d like to turn the page on the bad record we had at home in 2007.”
It may help that the Lightning bring the NHL’s worst road record – 3-13-2, after a shootout loss in Toronto on Tuesday night.
But the Bolts’ last road win was a 3-2 decision by shootout over Montreal on Dec. 11 at the Bell Centre – one of only two wins overall in their last 12 games.
The Canadiens got that one back by blitzing the Lightning 5-2 in Tampa last week.
Lightning ace Vincent Lecavalier leads all NHL scorers with 58 points, but is in danger of becoming the first player since Max Bentley of Chicago in 1947 to win an Art Ross Trophy with a last-place team. Tampa Bay is currently second-to-last overall, just ahead of Los Angeles.
After the Lightning, the Canadiens play host to Washington on Saturday and the Chicago Blackhawks on Jan. 8 before heading out for four more road games.
Coach Guy Carbonneau feels his team has turned a corner since enduring a 3-6-1 stretch in late November and early December.
The Canadiens had not posted a winning record on their annual Christmas-week road trip since 1998, so earning eight of 12 points this time was a bonus.
Now they just have to find the same success on home ice.
“One of these days, we’ll figure it out and we’ll turn it around,” said Carbonneau. “But I think we’re playing better than we were earlier this season.
“We worked on things for a while now and they’ve started to click. I think the players are starting to realize what kind of style we have to play and what kind of effort we need to be successful. That’s what we have to bring here.”
His club is also getting healthier.
For their first practice of 2008 after a two-day break, injured veterans Bryan Smolinski, Steve Begin and Patrice Brisebois were all on the ice, although none of them will play against Tampa Bay.
Brisebois is closest to returning from his shoulder injury and could be in the lineup as early as Saturday.
“The shoulder is much better and stronger,” said Brisebois, who has missed nine games. “I’m ready.”
Begin (shoulder) and Smolinski (knee) have each missed 11 games and, while they say they are almost ready, the team lists Begin as being two weeks away and Smolinski as two-to-four weeks away.
Carbonneau is in no hurry to bring them back.
“With the way we played on the road trip, I don’t think anybody deserved to come out (of the lineup), so we’ll wait,” he said.
When the three injured players return, the Canadiens will be right on the roster limit of 23 players.
There is also rookie defenceman Ryan O’Byrne, who is out six weeks with a broken right thumb.
Carbonneau has also not tinkered with new lines he established on the road trip, including one that sees Higgins on a checking trio with Michael Ryder and Maxim Lapierre.
They will likely go up against Lecavalier’s line.
Captain Saku Koivu, who sat out on Sunday with a flu, will be back between Guillaume Latendresse and Sergei Kostitsyn. The top line of Tomas Plekanec, Alex Kovalev and Andrei Kostitsyn remains intact.
Cristobal Huet will start a fourth straight game in goal.
It remains to be seen if new lines and a new year will translate into winning at home.
“There’s not a lot you can do to prepare the players for a road or a home game,” Carbonneau mused. “I could ask them to drive somewhere and then pick them up in a bus and bring them here, or get them to sleep at a hotel.
“But we want to play against a team, not a building.”