BROSSARD, Que. – Going into the season, Maxim Lapierre was a modest, fourth-line checking centre with a gift for getting on opposing players’ nerves.
But the speedy Montreal native has shown he can do damage in another way – by scoring goals.
Lapierre had the game-winner in the Canadiens’ 4-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday night. He used a deft move from the edge of the crease to beat Marc-Andre Fleury for his 10th goal of the campaign, already three more than he scored last season.
Now some wonder if he can score 20.
“To be honest, I don’t know,” the 23-year-old said Wednesday. “The main thing is I want to be a player that my teammates can trust in my own zone, that I won’t make defensive mistakes.
“That’s what I’m working on. I try to improve every game. When you play good defensively, the offence comes by itself.”
Lapierre had his ups and downs in his first three pro seasons, which were split between Montreal and its AHL affiliate, the Hamilton Bulldogs.
He thought he had made the team after playing 46 NHL games in 2006-07 and then helping Hamilton win the AHL championship, but a spotty camp last season saw him sent back to the Bulldogs.
But since training camp this season, he seems to have new levels of determination and maturity in his game and has been one of the team’s most consistent performers.
“It’s really hard when you finish a season in the NHL and then you get sent down the year after, but when I look at it now, it’s a good thing I went back and improved a lot of things on the ice,” he said.
“I think I always worked hard, but it was always more of a mental thing. I had to be more patient. I told myself I had to stop being nervous because it wasn’t helping. Now I try to be relaxed, look around me on the ice, take a breath out there.”
When the Canadiens struggled with injuries in December, Lapierre stepped up enough to be named the team’s player of the month.
He still plays the agitator on the ice, yapping at opponents and joining in post-whistle skirmishes, but Lapierre also impresses with his speed, a strong face-off winning percentage and solid defensive play.
“He likes to talk on the ice,” said winger Tom Kostopoulos, a frequent linemate. “He plays hard, he likes to get in guys’ faces and challenge them.
“He goes 100 miles an hour everywhere on the ice, and when you mix that with a bit of confidence with the puck, which he has now, good things happen. You put all that together and he’s having a decent year.”
Actually, Lapierre looked like he would take the league by storm when he was called up in 2006-07 and scored in three straight games, but then he was sent back to Hamilton and the magic streak was over. Only now does at least some of that appear to be coming back.
Lapierre was not a huge scorer in junior hockey, which started with the Montreal Rocket, who moved to Charlottetown and became the P.E.I. Rocket.
In the 2003 draft, Montreal took winger Andrei Kostitsyn in the first round, then two Rocket players – Cory Urquhart with the 40th overall pick and Lapierre with the 61st selection. Urquhart never came close to making the Canadiens, but Lapierre and defenceman Ryan O’Byrne (picked 79th) are there, as is goalie Jaroslav Halak (271st overall).
Asked about Lapierre’s ability to get under players’ skins, his linemate Guillaume Latendresse smiled and said “He even gets to me sometimes on the bench, so just imagine the opponents.”
Latendresse also noted that Lapierre seems to have a new sense of confidence.
“He’s one of the fastest skaters in the league and with that, he’ll beat people one-on-one and get chances, so all he needs is to make sure his confidence and speed are high.”
Latendresse learned Wednesday that he will be out for four to six weeks with a left shoulder even he wasn’t sure was separated or dislocated when he slid hard into the boards during a 3-1 loss to Boston on Sunday.
“They told me something in English and I said ‘all I want to know is how long?”‘ he said.
He joins an injured list that includes centre Robert Lang, out three months with a severed Achilles tendon, winger Alex Tanguay, out since early January with a shoulder injury, and defenceman Patrice Brisebois, who is day-to-day with a lower-body injury.
Forward Christopher Higgins missed practice Wednesday with an unknown ailment but is expected to play Friday night in Buffalo and a big home date Saturday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Defenceman Mathieu Dandenault (broken arm) and tough guy Georges Laraque (sore back) practised Wednesday and should be available on Friday, although it is uncertain if both with play.
The Canadiens returned defenceman Alex Henry to Hamilton on Wednesday after he suited up for two NHL games.