MONTREAL – Not even the players know what to expect when the Montreal Canadiens finally play their home opener.
The last NHL club to play a home game this season takes to the ice Thursday night against the red-hot Colorado Avalanche, although the Canadiens are still in the process of finding their identity as a team after an off-season of sweeping change.
They returned from a season-opening five-game road trip with a 2-3-0 record. On the way, injuries claimed defenceman Andrei Markov, who is perhaps their best player, defenceman Ryan O’Byrne and fourth-line centre Glen Metropolit.
“It should be exciting,” winger Mike Cammalleri, one of seven new players acquired during the summer, said Wednesday. “More importantly, we’re trying to work on some things as a team.
“I’m excited to get another crack at our team playing another hockey game. But it’s special to play in front of our home fans. It should be electric.”
The game against 4-1-1 Colorado begins a six-game homestand during which the process of forming a team out of the raft of new players continues under a new system of play and a new coach in Jacques Martin.
On the road, they had overtime wins in Toronto and Buffalo, played their best game but lost 4-3 in Calgary, were blown out 7-1 in Vancouver, and lost 3-2 in Edmonton on Saturday night.
They scored only 12 goals and allowed 18 in five games. They killed off only 63.2 per cent of the penalties they took, but scored on a decent 18.8 per cent of their power plays.
“More important than anything, we have to get on the same page,” added Cammalleri. “We’re still trying to work that out.
“For special teams, it’s even more evident than five-on-five.”
Martin is still adjusting his forward lines but looks settled on separating the team’s top three off-season acquisitions – Cammalleri, Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez, although they remain the top trio on the power play.
In practice, Gomez centred Gionta and big winger Travis Moen, while Tomas Plekanec played between Cammalleri and Andrei Kostitsyn. Maxim Lapierre centred Guillaume Latendresse and Max Pacioretty, while the fourth line had Kyle Chipchura between Georges Laraque and Greg Stewart.
It will be a special night for 24-year-old Shawn Belle, who was called up from AHL Hamilton to replace young rearguard Yannick Weber, who was sent back after struggling in three games and going minus-4 for Montreal.
Belle, the last pick in the first round of the 2003 draft, played nine games for the Minnesota Wild in 2006-07 but has not seen NHL action since. The six-foot-one, 240-pounder is coming off a strong season in Hamilton and a decent training camp.
“I wasn’t surprised, I was playing pretty well down in Hamilton,” said the 24-year-old Edmonton native. “I did certain things in camp that I felt might help me stay here.
“I played more defensive. I like to jump up in the play. Speed is one of my best assets, but I stayed back and played more defensive than I normally would.”
The Canadiens were expected to call up recently acquired defenceman Marc-Andre Bergeron, but Martin said he needed extra work in Hamilton because he didn’t have a training camp.
“We may play more with five defencemen, depending on Belle’s performance,” said Martin.
Belle has friends on the Canadiens. He is a former junior teammate of goaltender Carey Price and once had Josh Gorges as his defence partner with Canada at the world junior championships.
“It’s a little different this time,” he said of his second NHL chance. “There’s a lot of guys hurt now.
“In Minnesota, there wasn’t as big of a depth chart so there was more competition. Here, there’s a chance that if I play well, things could happen for me. So there’s a little more incentive. I just want to continue to be strong defensively and use the body. I don’t have to fight all the time, but just make sure I’m physical.”
A surprise of the first five games was that new defenceman Paul Mara is tied for the team lead with four points with Cammalleri and Plekanec, although both Mara and Cammalleri are seeking their first goal. Gionta leads the club with three goals while Moen, who was slated to play on the third line, has two.
They hope the goals will come once players get used to playing together.
As for an identity, Martin said he wants a team that is “fast, that moves the puck well, that goes to the net and that puts pressure on the opponent with an aggressive forecheck. Those are all things we want in our game.”