MONTREAL – It’s too late to save the season, but the Montreal Canadiens finally have some toughness in their lineup.
With a mid-January trade for Rene Bourque, the Feb. 15 return from injury of Ryan White and the acquisition off re-entry waivers of Brad Staubitz at the trade deadline Monday, the Canadiens will play out their final 18 regular season games a little bigger and a little more rugged than they were for most of the campaign.
And that suits coach Randy Cunneyworth just fine.
“I like the fact that we’re stepping up more, not backing down,” Cunneyworth said Wednesday. “It’s competing.”
Staubitz played his first game for Montreal in a 2-1 loss in Tampa on Tuesday night. While his scoring line stretched to zero points in 44 games this season, he took 17 minutes in penalties, including a scrap with the Lightning’s Pierre-Cedric Labrie.
He also got a minor and a misconduct for reaching out from the bench to grab Ryan Malone when the Lightning winger jumped Canadiens defenceman Alexei Emelin, who covered up under the hail of punches. Emelin hasn’t fought since he had facial reconstruction after losing a bout in the KHL in 2009.
“This team knows what I’m all about,” said the six-foot-one 215-pound Staubitz, who is more willing combatant than classic heavyweight. “I play hard for my teammates. When I get to know them more moving forward, hopefully I’ll be a good fit here.”
By coincidence, Staubitz’s first home game in a Canadiens jersey will be against his former team, the Minnesota Wild, on Thursday night. He has no plans to drop the gloves against any of his old pals, but said “we’ll see how the game turns out.”
It may be a sign of general manager Pierre Gauthier’s waning influence that the Canadiens picked up a fighter after going without one the last two seasons. The GM stubbornly insisted on trying to win with perhaps the NHL’s smallest group of forwards.
With the changes, they have a team more suited to Cunneyworth’s forechecking style. The interim coach, who like Gauthier is far from guaranteed to return next season, said having a player like Staubitz will make the entire team tougher.
“Nobody will admit it openly, but I can,” said Cunneyworth. “I think it makes a team more cohesive when you’ve got that element where players can back up certain actions on the ice.
“The other team knows. Players of that nature can even out things or just kind of not allow things of that nature to go on. It makes everybody a little bit more physical, a bit braver to some extent. Nobody’s going to admit that, personally. But I’m allowed to.”
Cunneyworth also defended Emelin, who was mocked by Malone for covering up instead of fighting.
Minutes after Malone boarded Emelin behind the Montreal net, the first-year Russian defenceman caught the Bolts’ winger with a heavy open-ice hit. He was called for interference because Malone did not have the puck.
“He should worry about his own team,” Cunneyworth said of Malone. “What I saw was an illegal hit from behind (by Malone) that started all this.
“Emelin plays that way every game. He doesn’t need to make apologies for the way he plays. He’s not a dirty player. He’s a hard hitter.”
Emelin ranks ninth in the NHL with 196 hits in 52 games, second among defencemen behind Toronto’s Luke Schenn with 206 in 61 games.
Thursday will also be a first home game as a member of the Habs for recently acquired forward Blake Geoffrion, although he played a game at the Bell Centre last week for the AHL Hamilton Bulldogs. Geoffrion also made his debut with the NHL club in Tampa.
Geoffrion wears No. 57, a combination of his grandfather Bernard (Boom Boom) Geoffrion’s No. 5 and his great-grandfather Howie Morenz’ No. 7, both of which are retired by the Canadiens.
“When we practised the first time with the Bulldogs, I looked up (at the Hall of Fame banners) and got chills down my back,” said 23-year-old Geoffrion, who was picked up in the deal that sent Hal Gill to Nashville.
“When I played here the first time I was pretty nervous and I didn’t play too well. But now I just need to focus on getting us a win.”
Perhaps the best news Montreal got was having Andrei Markov take part once again in an optional skate with several teammates. Cunneyworth said the team’s top defenceman is getting closer to being cleared for contact, which is one step away from playing.
Markov has missed the entire season and has suited up only seven times in the last two campaigns after a pair of surgeries on his right knee. Missing their power play quarterback has much to do with why the Canadiens are 29th in the 30-team league with the man advantage, and why they are in last place in the Eastern Conference.
Markov elected to have fun with the media that tried to press him for details on his condition.
When asked when he will be cleared for contact, he said: “That should be a big secret for you guys. I’m not going to tell you that.”
Asked whether he saw his surgeon James Andrews when the team was in Florida on the weekend, Markov said: “Yeah. Actually I saw him on the beach. He was walking around and I said ‘Hi’ to him.”
More seriously, Markov said he shouldn’t have to see Andrews again and that it would be team doctors who decide when he can start practising with full contact.
He doesn’t have an exact date that will happen, and can’t say precisely how fit he is now, but he will travel with the team next week for games in Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver and it could happen then.
But when asked if he expected to play before the end of the season, Markov said: “I can’t answer that question right now. Believe me, I just want to play. I miss the game so much.”