BROSSARD, Que. – Facing the Pittsburgh Penguins as coach of the Eastern Conference-leading Montreal Canadiens sets up a potential I-told-you-so moment for Michel Therrien.
But Therrien brushed aside any notion of revenge against the team that fired him then won the Stanley Cup with a backhand wave on Friday.
“It’s going to be special, I’m not going to hide it,” the 49-year-old coach said. “But I’ve got some great memories of my time in Pittsburgh.
“There are some players I know well. I have a lot of respect for them. But to play against your old team as a player or a coach is special.”
The Canadiens (13-4-3) have been one of the surprises of the lockout shortened NHL campaign after last season’s last-place finish.
They go into Saturday night’s contest against second-place Pittsburgh (13-7-0) on a run of nine games with at least a point (7-0-2) since their 6-0 loss to Toronto on Feb. 9.
Now they have a tough weekend in store, as they travel to division rival Boston on Sunday night.
Therrien began his NHL coaching career with Montreal in the early 2000s and then jumped to the Pittsburgh organization, where he coached in the minors before taking over the NHL squad after the last lockout in 2005.
With young stars like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang in his lineup, Therrien’s team posted 105 points in 2005-06 and went to the Stanley Cup final the following season, losing in six games to Detroit.
But with the squad struggling, Therrien was abruptly sacked on Feb. 15, 2009 in favour of Dan Bylsma, who not only got the Penguins into the playoffs, but won the 2009 Stanley Cup in a seven-game thriller over the Red Wings.
Therrien hadn’t coached since, but spent his time as an analyst on French-language television before new general manager Marc Bergevin made the surprise move of bringing him back to coach the Canadiens in June.
Blessed with a mostly healthy team and the addition of some extra grit among the forwards, the Canadiens have been on a tear since play resumed on Jan. 19.
There are some in hockey who felt Bylsma’s success showed that Therrien didn’t have what it takes to lead a team to a title. Others felt Therrien deserved another shot at being a head coach, and he looks to be proving them right.
Despite the slap of seeing his successor win the Cup that eluded him in Pittsburgh, Therrien sees his time there as a positive experience.
“I coached some guys that had great talent,” he said. “They were 18 or 19 at the time.
“It was a challenge. No one expected us to be in a Stanley Cup final that quickly. We’re in first place now and they’re in second, but playing against that team is a challenge even if Malkin is out (with a concussion). There’s only seven or eight guys left on that roster since I left, but the identity is always the same.”
Still, when asked if he would put money up for his players for a win, Therrien laughed and said “what happens in the room stays in the room.”
It will also be a big night for right winger Michael Ryder, who returned to the Canadiens this week in a surprise trade with the Dallas Stars for veteran Erik Cole.
The 32-year-old who had back-to-back 30-goal seasons early in his career with Montreal left as an unrestricted free agent for Boston after the 2007-08 season. He moved to Dallas as a UFA after winning a Cup with the Bruins in 2011.
“I haven’t been in a Habs jersey for a long time,” said Ryder. “Just going out there in front of the crowd again is going to be a lot of fun.
“Hopefully it’s a good game and the fans welcome me back.”
It was a wild week for Ryder, who had almost no sleep from the time he was traded on Tuesday evening to playing his first game in Montreal’s 5-2 win in Toronto the following night. Then he spent an off-day Thursday flying back and forth to Dallas to collect some clothes and other items.
But he was on the ice for practice Friday morning, starting to learn Therrien’s system and getting used to young linemates Lars Eller and Alex Galchenyuk.
“This is where I started my career and I never thought I’d be back,” he said. “But it’s good to be back.
“We’ve got something good going on here and hopefully I can help keep the train rolling. Since the last game I can see why they had success and why they’re first. They play high-paced. It’s a fast team.”
He’s got another emotional game coming when he faces his former teammates in Boston.
A surprise was to see Petteri Nokelainen skating with his teammates, without a no-contact jersey. The defensive centre has not played this season due to a back injury suffered while lifting weights during the summer.
Therrien said Nokelainen will need to get himself into better shape before he can be used in a game, but he will accompany the team as it starts a five-game road trip in Boston.
Therrien said forward Rene Bourque and defenceman Raphael Diaz, both diagnosed with concussions this week, have shown no improvement and remain out of action indefinitely.