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Hard-hitting Habs

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

BROSSARD – The Habs know things will have to get rough if they hope to roll over the Blues to a third consecutive win.

The Canadiens have been doing a lot of things right in 2012 and upping their physical play has been among the most important. Checking harder than ever since the start of the new year, the Habs know they’ll have to bring that same edge to work Tuesday night at the Bell Centre when they face Jaroslav Halak and the brawny Blues.

“In order to be successful, you have to be physical, I think. St. Louis has demonstrated that all season. They’re a physical team that plays an honest, hard-nosed game and that’s gotten them the results,” dropped head coach Randy Cunneyworth of the Blues squad that ranks 13th overall in the hits column with 910 so far this season.

Alexei Emelin's style of play

While the Habs currently hold the 20th rank in the NHL in that same category, it’s clear things have been ramping up in the hit department since Cunneyworth settled in behind the bench. In the last three games under their new coach’s lead, the Habs have averaged 29 hits per game for a total of 87 over that stretch – up from an average of 20 hits per match when led by Jacques Martin.

“As far as our play in the last couple of games, I think the physicality has increased on our end more, too. We’re a lot more physical on our forecheck and come out with the puck more because of it. It’s been effective for us and we’re looking to continue in the same vein,” added Cunneyworth, who’s allowed hard-hitting Alexei Emelin’s ice-time to climb, most recently logging 20:14 in a seven hit performance versus Tampa Bay. “The Blues are going to be a tough team to play against and we’re going to have to battle them tooth and nail, show resiliency, and show that we can play against the top teams in the league.”

While the Blues clearly have size, it’s the skill that accompanies it that’s allowed them to rise to fourth in the Western Conference. With 53 points, the St. Louis squad is currently in a tie with the Central Divison leading Red Wings.

“All you have to do is look at their first line with Backes and Stewart who are both two pretty physical guys,” said Mathieu Darche of the Blues forwards who check in at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds and 6-foot-2, 232 pounds, respectively. “This is a team with a very aggressive forecheck. Teams coached by Ken Hitchcock tend to also be very stingy with their opponents defensively and that’s why the Blues have been finding success since the beginning of the season.

“They play as a unit of five on the ice and don’t give up many chances,” added Darche whose 49 hits currently rank him third among Canadiens forwards behind only Erik Cole and Travis Moen. “We can’t start to cheat – if the chances aren’t there right away, we have to be patient. With the amount of talent they have they can be extremely dangerous with their transition game.”

Fans in attendance for Tuesday night’s tilt can also look forward to the highly anticipated goaltending duel of Carey Price and Jaroslav, while Lars Eller will work to continue to prove that he’s well worth what the team gave up to get him.

Justin Fragapane is a writer for

Rapid fire:

- Tuesday morning was an optional skate for the Canadiens, with every player present except Michael Cammalleri, Andrei Kostitsyn, Tomas Plekanec and Tomas Kaberle. They’re all expected to suit up against the Blues.

- Max Pacioretty was back at practice after staying home with the flu on Monday. While feeling much better, Pacioretty’s presence in the lineup will be a game time decision.

- Head coach Randy Cunneyworth stated that there’s a good possibility that his lineup against the Blues will again employ 11 forwards and seven defensemen.

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