The Colorado Avalanche lost 6-3 to the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday night at Bell Centre, but for several Avs it was a welcome-back game; either to the ice, to the city and province, or to a former team.
Center Paul Stastny returned to the ice and game action against the Habs after missing the last four contests with a back injury. He suffered the injury on the first shift against the St. Louis Blues on March 8.
Stastny was back centering a line with Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon, and played 20:42 and won 61 percent of his faceoffs (11 of 18). He also assisted on the game's first goal when he knocked the puck from the end boards to MacKinnon, and the rookie scored on a backhand shot in front of the net.
It was Stastny's 48th point of the season, and he is now just two points shy of becoming fifth Avs player to hit the half-century mark in scoring.
Ryan O'Reilly also returned to the ice, even though he didn't miss any game action. He left late in the third period of Sunday's game at Ottawa and missed Monday's practice, but he was back playing on one of the Avalanche's top scoring lines with Matt Duchene and Jamie McGinn.
O'Reilly had an assist on McGinn's goal at 10:05 of the third period that tied the game at 3-3. O'Reilly now 56 points this season (25 goals, 31 assists), which sets a new career high. He has also set personal bests in goals, power-play goals (8) and game-winners (6) this year.
For several members of the Avalanche, it was a trip back home. Or at least as close to home as they would get during the regular season.
Four Avs players that played Tuesday are from Quebec, while two, Patrick Bordeleau and Jean-Sebastien Giguere, are from the city of Montreal. Marc-Andre Cliche (Rouyn Noranda) and Maxime Talbot (Lemoyne) are from other cities in the province.
There was also plenty of family and friends that came out to watch them play.
"I don't know the number, but I know there is a lot of people coming to see us," said Cliche, whose favorite team growing up was the Habs.
After playing 16 seasons and at the age of 36, Giguere was possibly playing in his final game against his hometown team.
Giguere has had success against the Canadiens in the past as he entered the game with an 8-3-1 record, a 2.49 goals-against average and .918 save percentage against the Habs. He had made 29 saves in a 4-1 win at Pepsi Center on Nov. 2 versus Montreal. Giguere made 30 saves on Tuesday.
The Avalanche has two other players from Quebec, PA Parenteau (Hull) and Alex Tanguay (Ste-Justine), but neither played because of injuries. Paul Stastny was born in Quebec City, but he has duel citizenship after spending most of his childhood in the United States.
And then there was the Avalanche head coach.
A lot of the talk over the last few days had been about Patrick Roy's return to Montreal as an NHL coach, but Roy said he used the same approach as he does with his players, "taking it one day at a time," and not focusing on his return to the city until after Sunday's win against the Senators.
Roy played parts of 11 seasons with the Canadiens and helped the team win two Stanley Cups (1986, 1993) before joining the Avs in December 1995 and winning two more championships with Colorado (1996, 2001).
"I learned a lot from this franchise," Roy said of the Canadiens in a news conference on Monday following the Avs' practice at Bell Centre. "It helped me to become the person I am. Not only the person I am, but also the player I was."
The Canadiens held a video tribute for Roy before the game, but he was able to avoid any giant ovation when he entered the arena as he snuck onto the bench before puck drop.
Still, Roy said after the game he appreciated the tribute and the recognition from the Montreal organization and the fans.
"I did not, but I thought they showed a lot of class," Roy said on if he was expecting any kind of tribute. "It was nice. They didn't make it a big thing, and that's the way I want it. It was very simple."
While it was a special night for Roy, the Colorado coach didn't want his players to feel any extra pressure on trying to win just for him.
But that didn't stop them from trying.
"O'Reilly hurt himself last game, he wanted to play. Stastny came back tonight. I knew what they were doing. I have been in this league long enough. I have a lot of respect for my players, and I certainly appreciate what theses guys have done. I didn't want them to feel pressure for trying to win a hockey game for their coach. I wanted them to go out there and win for the hockey team. It's all about the team, and I certainly don't want to put myself ahead of the team.
"It was important for me to let them know I'm already proud of them. I’m already very happy to be a part of this partnership with the players. I didn't need a special night. Yes, I would love to win every game, but it is the same level that I want to win tomorrow night in Winnipeg."
MacKINNON NOT FAZED
Playing on the big stage in Montreal didn't slow down Nathan MacKinnon.
If anything, he went faster.
MacKinnon had a game-high six shots and scored a nifty goal in the first period that gave the Avs a 1-0 lead.
Setting up in front of the Habs' net, he received the pass from Stastny, went forehand to backhand with the puck, and fired a shot past goalie Carey Price's right pad for his 23rd goal of the season.
"It was a nice play," MacKinnon said. "The puck bounced out to me in front there, and I managed to bring it around. Pretty glad to get that one, for sure."
There were plenty of people watching the rookie back in his home of Nova Scotia, as MacKinnon has said the Canadiens have a large following in the province and that their games are often televised. Tuesday's game was televised regionally in Eastern Canada by TSN.
MacKinnon leads all NHL rookies this season in points (53), goals, assists (30), power-play goals (8), game-winning goals (5-tied) and shots (201).
AVS ENJOY BELL CENTRE
The Bell Centre has reputation as being one of the loudest buildings in the league.
That loud crowd helped the Canadiens score four unanswered goals and win 5-4 in overtime on Saturday against the Senators.
However, the hostile crowd didn't faze the Avalanche.
"We knew coming here that the crowd is crazy. It's in our favor, too," Cliche said. "You like to play away in buildings like this. You have to stay focused and try and come out with two (points)."
Two Avs players that played in Tuesday's game will always have a special connection to the Bell Centre, as Matt Duchene (No. 3) and Ryan O'Reilly (No. 33) were selected by Colorado at the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, which was held at the arena. Tyson Barrie was also drafted that year at No. 64 overall, but he did not attend the event.
MITCHELL HURTS BACK
Center John Mitchell injured his back in the second period against the Canadiens and did not return to the game.
Mitchell was trying to disrupt Lars Eller's shot at 11:58 of the period when he got tangled up with the Montreal player and hit the Colorado end boards back first. Mitchell was able to leaving the ice on his own feet, but he did have Avs head athletic trainer Matt Sokolowski helping him to the locker room.
"It's his back," Roy said in his postgame news conference. "I know he is at the hospital right now. We'll know more in a couple of hours, I assume."
With Stastny's return to the lineup, Mitchell was centering Colorado's third line with Maxime Talbot and Cody McLeod. He signed a three-year contract extension last Friday.
VARLY GETS NIGHT OFF
Reto Berra backed up Jean-Sebastien Giguere on Tuesday night, giving usual starting goalie Semyon Varlamov a full night off. Varlamov had played in the Avs' previous five games.
Cory Sarich, Paul Carey, Ryan Wilson and PA Parenteau (knee injury) joined Varlamov on the team's scratch list.
Berra is scheduled to get his first start with the Avs on Wednesday in Winnipeg. He was acquired at the trade deadline from Calgary and signed a three-year contract extension last Friday.