PITTSBURGH -- Hal Gill knows it’s too early to give up on a season.
Amid rumblings in Montreal that the Canadiens should start weighing which players to shed at the trading deadline as they rebuild for the future, Gill offered a history lesson -- one from not so long ago -- upon returning to Pittsburgh on Friday.
The Canadiens are 4-10-1 in their last 15 games heading into an important weekend in which they play at Pittsburgh tonight and at Toronto on Saturday. But, as Gill reminded, a season that looks to be lost can be salvaged -- even if it can’t happen in the span of a few games.
The Penguins, as Gill reminded, were 27-25-5 in mid-February 2009 before Dan Bylsma took over as coach. At the time, there was trepidation in Pittsburgh that a team led by stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin might miss the playoffs.
Instead, the Penguins finished with an 18-3-4 surge that not only got them into the playoffs, but earned them home-ice advantage in the first round, and they went on to win the Stanley Cup.
”I’ve been in that situation before where time isn’t on your side, and somehow you win a game, win a game and the next thing you know you’re back in the playoffs,” Gill said.
The Canadiens have been without the injured Scott Gomez (groin), Brian Gionta (biceps), Andrei Markov (knee) and Ryan White (hernia) for all or part of the season, but Gill insisted there’s still time to get Montreal’s fans excited.
Start looking ahead to next season? No, Gill said, the Canadiens simply must look ahead only to their next game.
“You go out and play one game tonight and try to do everything you can to get that win and go on to the next game,” he said. “I don’t think you can look long term. It’s an uphill battle, but you’ve got to take one step at a time.”
Sounds simple, but it isn’t. Gill said it takes chemistry and a team that believes in what its coach is telling it to do.
“We found a way to click (in ’09), did some different things,” Gill said. “It wasn’t like, 'Hey, we’ve got to get this many points (to make the playoffs),’ it was, 'We’ve got to win tonight.’"
Like those 2008-09 Penguins, the Canadiens made a coaching change by firing Jacques Martin on Dec. 17 and elevating former assistant Randy Cunneyworth to interim coach for the rest of the season. Since the move, the Canadiens are 4-9-1.
With the idea of getting an energized team off to a fast start, Cunneyworth held an optional morning skate Friday at Consol Energy Center. The Penguins are coming off a 4-1 road victory against the New York Rangers on Thursday, during a week in which they play four games in six days.
“We know Pittsburgh is a good team," said Cunneyworth. "They played last night, so we want to come at full force and get off to that good start."
Finding a way to slow down NHL scoring leader Evgeni Malkin – he has seven goals in four games –greatly would boost Montreal’s chances of winning. Gill knows from experience how difficult that can be.
“They’ve got a pretty good system that they play and they all buy into it and when they’re going, they roll four lines and things happen for them,” Gill said. “They play responsible and let their skill go when they get in the offensive end. … You have to be aggressive when you can (with Malkin), but if you’re lunging or cheating, he’ll take advantage of it. He’s a guy we obviously have to watch for and play hard on him.”
Peter Budaj, who stopped 29 of 30 shots while beating the Rangers 4-1 on Sunday, will be in goal for the second time in 12 games as Carey Price sits out. Price is 0-3-1 in his last four starts, 15-17-8 overall and 7-6-1 in his career against Pittsburgh.
Cunneyworth doesn’t expect any carryover from the Max Pacioretty hit Nov. 26 that left Penguins defenseman Kris Letang with a broken nose and a concussion. Letang didn’t return until Thursday night in New York.
Pacioretty was suspended three games for his hit to Letang’s head. This will be the first time the teams have met since then.
“I think they’ve discussed it; it’s a hockey play that occurred, the League dealt with it,” Cunneyworth said. “I don’t think anybody is interested in that kind of thing, but obviously if someone wants to press the issue, we’ll take care of it.”
Here's what the Canadiens’ lineup likely will be when they face the Pens for the third time this season:
Max Pacioretty - David Desharnais - Erik Cole
Travis Moen - Lars Eller - Andrei Kostitsyn
Rene Bourque - Tomas Plekanec - Mike Blunden
Mathieu Darche - Scott Gomez
Josh Gorges - P.K. Subban
Hal Gill - Raphael Diaz
Tomas Kaberle - Yannick Weber
Peter Budaj will start in goal, with Carey Price the backup.