MONTREAL – For Louis Leblanc, stepping onto the Bell Centre ice as a member of the Montreal Canadiens will be an exciting new experience.
For Max Pacioretty, it will be a return to normal after serving a three-game suspension for a hit to the head of Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman Kris Letang.
Both are slated to be in the lineup when the Canadiens, freshly returned from a three-game swing through California, play host to the last-place Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday night.
”It’s something I’ve looked forward to a long time,” said Leblanc, a 20-year-old Montreal native who was chosen 18th overall by the Canadiens at an NHL draft held at the Bell Centre in 2009.
”I’m trying to stay composed. There are a lot of emotions with fans, media, family and friends, but it’s what I love to do, so I take it day by day.”
The Canadiens downed the Kings 2-1 in Los Angeles on Saturday to go 1-1-1 on the trip and return home with an 11-11-5 record for the season.
Leblanc was called up from AHL Hamilton when NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan slapped Pacioretty with a suspension for the open-ice hit on Letang on Nov. 26, which left the Penguins’ top rearguard with a broken nose and a suspected concussion.
The quick-footed 20-year-old is one of Montreal’s top prospects and he didn’t look out of place skating mostly on the third line with Lars Eller and Andrei Kostitsyn in games at Anaheim, San Jose and Los Angeles.
He capped the voyage with his first career point as he set up Eller for a back-and-forth exchange that Kostitsyn finished for the game-winner against the Kings.
A bigger thrill was having his parents in the seats in Anaheim to witness his NHL debut. That was a product of some generosity and mentorship from veteran winger Erik Cole, who put up the money to fly them to the coast.
”That was awesome,” said Leblanc. ”I wanted my parents there but it was short notice to get things organized.
”But (Cole) said, ‘Make sure they’re at the game. Here’s my credit card.’ It was an amazing thing for him to do. It’s something me and my family won’t forget, for sure.”
Leblanc played well enough that the Canadiens opted to keep him and send Aaron Palushaj back to Hamilton. He got another vote of confidence Monday when centre Andreas Engqvist was sent to Hamilton after coming off the injured list.
It appears Pacioretty’s return will bump him only as far as the fourth line with Petteri Nokelainen and Mathieu Darche.
Coach Jacques Martin, normally not one for tossing roses to rookies, said he liked what he saw of Leblanc, particularly his defensive play.
”When you look at how he played, I used him late in games, especially when we were ahead against L.A. protecting a lead,” said Martin. ”He’s a smart player and he competed hard.”
It remains to be seen how long Leblanc stays with the NHL club. Checker Ryan White, who has yet to play this season due to an injury, is skating again and may return in the coming weeks. Centre Scott Gomez is also recovering from an injury.
Leblanc, who helped Canada’s world junior team to a silver medal nearly a year ago, said he’ll play wherever Martin wants him to.
”Everyone has their role,” Leblanc said. ”Whether you play five or 20 minutes, you have to do your job.
”Every pass is on the tape here. Every play is almost perfect. So you can’t slack. You’ve always got to be sharp.”
Pacioretty, who disputes his suspension because he said Letang saw him coming and thus accepted he would be hit, returns on a unit with captain Brian Gionta and centre Tomas Plekanec. Plekanec missed practice Monday while his wife gave birth to a son.
Pacioretty, who leads the team with 10 goals, said he was more than just a spectator on road.
”The guys were joking around saying I was on vacation in California, but I think I was working a lot harder than they were,” he said. ”The coaches had me up early working out, but I feel refreshed and ready to go.”
Martin has opted to keep the line of Cole, David Desharnais and Michael Cammalleri together, while Eller and Kostitsyn had Travis Moen instead of Leblanc on right wing.
While on their trip, the Canadiens had yet another episode in the Andrei Markov soap opera. The top defenceman who played only seven games last season after a second straight right knee injury looked close to returning last week only to have another setback on the coast.
He looked to have disappeared when the team got to San Jose and when a spokesman said he had stayed behind to see a doctor, speculation ran wild. Reluctant general manager Pierre Gauthier finally emerged to say Markov would need arthroscopic surgery.
Gauthier confirmed that Markov had surgery Monday in Florida to remove debris from his knee and that his recovery period will be four to six weeks. Back in September, the team said he would miss only a handful of games. Now he won’t be on ice until January.
Also Monday, defenceman Chris Campoli got the green light for full contact practices, although there is no date set for his return. Campoli was injured in the opening game of the regular season.
Another injured blue-liner, Jaroslav Spacek, practised in a no-contact jersey.