BROSSARD, Que. – There’s no guarantee that he’ll play much, but the Montreal Canadiens’ three-game swing through western Canada is a big deal for rookie defenceman Brendon Nash.
The Kamloops, B.C. native was called up this week from Hamilton of the AHL and made his NHL debut in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday night.
With the Canadiens short four veterans on defence, the 23-year-old was told he would accompany the team on a trip that has stops Thursday night in Edmonton, in Calgary on Sunday for the outdoor Heritage Classic game and next Tuesday in Vancouver.
“This whole week is going by so fast,” Nash said Wednesday after an optional skate at the Canadiens suburban practice facility. “I got called up (Tuesday) and played that night.
“It’s all a blur. Hopefully it will sink in as the road trip continues. It’s going to be a great experience. It’s my first NHL road trip and I couldn’t think of three better places to play—close to home and with the outdoor game happening as well.”
The Canadiens signed the six-foot-three 210-pound rearguard as an undrafted free agent out of Cornell University in 2008. He has 23 points in 50 games for Hamilton in his first year of pro hockey.
That he is with the team at all stems from a rash of injuries that left Roman Hamrlik as the only Canadiens defenceman in the game against Buffalo who played for the team last season.
Top rearguard Andrei Markov and the dependable Josh Gorges are gone for the season with knee injuries, although they got a veteran rearguard back in a late December trade with the New York islanders for James Wisniewski.
More recently, Hal Gill went down with an upper body injury and Jaroslav Spacek with a lower body ailment. Gill will make the trip and may be able to play before it’s over, while Spacek wasn’t on the flight but may be able to rejoin the team before it’s over.
In their absence, 36-year-old Hamrlik has been the anchor, and rookie P.K. Subban has had to take on a veteran’s responsibilities. The 21-year-old had a team-high 29:22 of ice time against the Sabres.
Nash was paired with Yannick Weber, another youngster called up from Hamilton in November. The two didn’t make any costly errors in controlled ice time mainly against the third and fourth lines. They had played together briefly in Hamilton.
“Personally, I thought it went pretty well,” said Nash. “I tried to keep it simple and I was able to do that.
“I got a couple of shifts in early and that was good. It got the nerves out. But overall it sucks when you lose your first game.”
Coach Jacques Martin was satisfied.
“It’s important to go back to the fact that he had a good training camp and he had a good season in Hamilton,” said Martin. “Against Buffalo, he moved the puck well and he made good decisions. I thought he handled himself well.”
Forward Michael Cammalleri, an ex-Flame who missed the last 11 games with a suspected separated shoulder, is also nearing a return. He skated, tried some of his favourite one-timer on one knee shots, and even tested the shoulder against a pad held by the team’s strength coach on the ice.
The Canadiens have four points from their last three games, but they include two shootout losses. It allowed them to stay on Boston’s tail for first place in the Northeast Division, but they have only one regulation time win in their last five games.
Martin pointed out that of the three western Canadian teams, last-place overall Edmonton was the only one to win in Montreal this season—a 4-3 overtime decision on Dec. 1. The Canadiens beat Vancouver 2-0 on Nov. 9 and Calgary 5-4 in OT on Jan. 17 at the Bell Centre.
The Canadiens hope to avoid looking past Edmonton to the Heritage Classic game, where about 40,000 are expected at McMahon Stadium.
“Edmonton’s a young team and they’re going to play hard,” said Hamrlik, who played for both the Oilers and the Flames earlier in his career. “We have to bring back some points from the trip and finish the season strong.”
It is also a big trip for goaltender Carey Price, a Vancouver native who is to unveil a new mask at the Heritage Classic, although he gave no details of its look other than that it will have a “retro” design.
“I’m meeting up with the artist out there and I’m sure it’ll be pretty neat,” he said. “I haven’t actually got to see the mask yet.”