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Changes coming as Canadiens heal

Monday, 11.11.2013 / 7:48 PM
Arpon Basu  - Managing Editor LNH.com

BROSSARD, Quebec – The Montreal Canadiens are getting healthy, and that will have some rather drastic repercussions on the lineup.

The Canadiens will welcome back defenseman Alexei Emelin this weekend and center Daniel Briere could return from injury as soon as Tuesday, coach Michel Therrien announced Monday.

Emelin has not played since undergoing surgery to repair the torn anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in his left knee in May. He visited with the doctor who performed the surgery in New York on Monday and was given the green light to return.

Therrien said Emelin will play this weekend, either Friday on the road against the Columbus Blue Jackets or Saturday at home against the New York Rangers.

"If things go well he's got a great chance to play this weekend," Therrien said. "So that's great news for us."

As for Briere, he was playing center on Montreal's third line between Rene Bourque and Michael Bournival at practice Monday, his second straight day of high-intensity activity. Briere has been out since Oct. 19 when he sustained a concussion, his third in less than two years.

The Canadiens play the Tampa Bay Lightning at home Tuesday.

"I feel like I'm close to returning, but I don't know if it will be [Tuesday]," Briere said. "I have to meet with the doctors and the coaches. But there's no doubt I'm feeling better and better. If I can't play [Tuesday], I'll be ready by the weekend."

Briere said Monday he hasn't felt any concussion symptoms in 10 days and that he never doubted his ability to come back in spite of the frequency with which he has sustained concussions over the past two years.

"There was no doubt in my mind," Briere said. "From the start I told myself it should take two to three weeks. So it's been three weeks now, and I knew in my heart it was a matter of days before I was back playing."

Briere was skating at center for the first time this season, a position he played for most of his career until he was moved to right wing last season by the Philadelphia Flyers after he arrived for training camp with a broken wrist that prevented him from taking faceoffs.

"I've always played center, so I feel more comfortable there," Briere said. "But I also understand the situation here in Montreal."

That situation used to be that there were too many centers to fill the top three spots, but it has changed because of the difficulties David Desharnais has experienced this season.

Briere was filling the spot at practice Monday where Desharnais played in Montreal's 4-2 win against the New York Islanders on Sunday, the 16th time in 17 games this season where Desharnais failed to get a point.

With one assist in 17 games despite getting 15:03 of ice time per game, including 1:33 per game on the power play, Desharnais appears to have run out of rope with Therrien and risks being a healthy scratch for the second time in a week Tuesday.

While Briere was filling his spot at practice Monday, Desharnais was not skating on any of the four lines.

Therrien said after the win Sunday that "we've tried everything to get his game back" and referred back to those comments Monday.

"He's having some difficulties," Therrien said. "I've made a decision and I'll let you know [Tuesday]."

With Bournival playing so well and injured forward Brandon Prust also working his way back towards a return from a shoulder injury, the numbers game is not likely to get better for Desharnais any time soon.

Struggling the way Desharnais has is not easy in any city, but it can become unbearable in Montreal. That's particularly true when you are in the first year of a four-year, $14 million contract, and also when you are a native Quebecer like he is.

The fan pressure has become so intense the new mayor-elect of Montreal weighed in Sunday, with Denis Coderre putting a message out on Twitter during the game that Desharnais should be given a "one-way ticket" to the Hamilton Bulldogs of the American Hockey League.

Desharnais' teammates were not impressed with the city's new mayor, elected Nov. 3, slamming one of their own.

"I found out about that this morning, I'm very, very upset about that," said Desharnais' longtime linemate and friend Max Pacioretty. "What does he think he's going to do, coach our team tomorrow? That's embarrassing. I mean, to bring down a player, such a great person, such a great player, such a hard worker; you guys don't know what goes on behind closed doors.

"People can put on a show for the cameras and make it look like you're doing everything, but Davey's a true competitor and a great player, and a great teammate and that's just so uncalled for."

In much the same way Briere's arrival is forcing Desharnais out of the lineup, Emelin's return this weekend will do the same on defense. The most likely candidates will be one of Francis Bouillon or Douglas Murray, who currently constitute Montreal's third pairing.

Bouillon has been on the ice for 10 goals against at even strength this season, according to Extraskater.com, tying him for second most on the team with Andrei Markov and behind P.K. Subban's 12. Markov has played 48 more minutes at even strength than Bouillon this season, and Subban has played 64 more minutes.

Therrien did not want to address what will happen to his lineup when Emelin returns, but it is obvious his presence will make the Canadiens' defense better.

"He has a big impact on us as a group," defenseman Josh Gorges said. "To add another guy of his quality solidifies the quality of our top six, where you can integrate pairings and change pairings throughout the game without affecting a whole lot."

The one thing Emelin brings that the Canadiens lack is a physically intimidating hitter who punishes forwards that enter the Montreal zone with their heads down. Gorges talked about how a player like that may not force opposing forwards to completely change their styles, but it could make them hesitate slightly when choosing to go into a corner or to cut across the middle of the ice.

"That half second, maybe it doesn't change anything, but maybe it does," Gorges said. "He has a presence, just knowing that he's out there."

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