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Don't let up

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

MONTREAL – Saturday night’s Habs-Lightning match-up is about as close as you can get to a playoff game in the month of January.

The Habs and Lighning have a lot in common going into Saturday’s tilt at the Bell Centre. After each earning a berth into the Eastern Conference finals, the Canadiens in 2009-10 and the Lightning last season, both teams have struggled in their most recent campaign. Tied at 37 points and sitting 12th and 13th in the race for the NHL's second season, neither team can afford to make a mistake moving forward.

“We have to make sure we progress here. If you look at our first game after Christmas, we played Ottawa and won 6-2, but then we went on to lose the next two games. It’s nice to feel good about our last game, a lot of people did a lot of good things, but that’s over now and we have to focus on tonight,” said one-time Tampa Bay forward Mathieu Darche on the Habs’ need for consistency in their second game of 2012.

Michael Cammalleri battles with Tampa Bay's Eric Brewer.

“We know we have a lot of work to do, but to be able to go on a streak and win five in a row, you have to start by winning two in a row,” added Darche, clearly hoping to follow the team’s win up with a different result than the last time they faced Guy Boucher’s squad. “We know we’re going up against another desperate team tonight that’s going to come out strong."

The Habs will have to contend with red-hot, Steven Stamkos, who kept his current five-game goal streak going against Montreal during their last encounter to help him reach eight goals during the tear. The Canadiens, however, will look to benefit from the return of captain Brian Gionta to the lineup, and will likely be able to count of on the physical play of Alexei Emelin, who practiced wearing a full cage and will be a game time decision after taking a puck in the face during Friday’s skate.

“It was as we thought. No damage beyond the swelling,” confirmed Randy Cunneyworth on the status of his hard-hitting defenseman who ranks first in the NHL in checks among rookies. “He had a good skate this morning and we’ll wait and see how he feels after exerting himself as he did and make sure he feels as good tonight as he did this morning.

“Anytime you get hit in the head you have to be careful, but we don’t expect any problems. Our trainers made sure that it wasn’t a case of a concussion or else he wouldn’t have been available to us this morning,” added the Habs head coach. “That was a heck of a shot he took, but that just shows you what a tough customer he is.”

Max Pacioretty, who should find himself reunited with linemates Erik Cole and David Desharnais Saturday night knows that beating a Lightning team just as desperate as his own will be no easy task.

“We need to really make sure we get to it tonight, especially since last game we had the lead on them but they ended up coming back and winning the game. Being so close to us in the standings we know this is going to be a team that we’re going to have to battle with all year,” expressed the Habs’ power forward, who logged an assist on a second period Erik Cole marker during the team’s last visit to Tampa Bay. “I thought that last time we played them was the most important game of the year, but right now this is by far our most important game. Getting those two points back that we lost from them would be huge.

“It was a great feeling for us scoring seven goals last game, but everyone knows where we are in standings right now and nobody’s happy,” finished Pacioretty. “If we put together a lot of wins I think there’s more room for smiles – but right now it’s all business.”

Justin Fragapane is a writer for

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