MONTREAL – With one week to go in the regular season, Raphael Diaz picked a perfect time to return to the Habs lineup.
After missing the past 25 games with a concussion, Diaz stepped back into the Canadiens’ lineup for the first time since Feb. 25 on Saturday night. While the Swiss blue-liner admits it will take a few more days to shake off the rust completely, the work he did in his first 19:29 of action in nearly two months was a good place to start.
“It needs time; you have to go shift-by-shift to get the movements from the games back,” conceded Diaz, who played 3:12 on the power play and another 1:39 shorthanded in his return from injury. “The best thing to get into game shape is to play shifts and get into the game. You can practice really hard the whole time, but games are always different because you don’t know what to expect. The best thing to do is just play.”
A welcome addition to a defensive corps that recently lost Alexei Emelin to a season-ending knee injury, Diaz has three more games to get back the timing that saw him record an impressive 13 points in his first 19 games of the year.
“I’m confident we’ll get back to that structure we had the whole season when we were successful; we were supporting each other, we were battling hard and those are things we need to get back to,” mentioned Diaz following his team’s 5-1 loss to the Capitals. “We have to play way better defensively. That was our strength the whole season; we were really tight in our zone, we were talking a lot and supporting a lot and we have to find that again.”
Despite outshooting the Caps by a 36-25 margin, the Canadiens were only able to solve Washington netminder Braden Holtby once all night, going 0-for-5 with the man advantage against the NHL’s third-worst penalty kill. Having enjoyed his power play coming out party earlier this season with seven points in 19 games with the man advantage to start the year, Diaz will look to provide a needed spark to the team’s back end down the stretch.
“Our goal is to shoot the puck more,” shared Diaz. “We have to work on that and analyze that next week and do it better in the next game and build off that. Everybody here is a professional and we know what we have to do going into the playoffs.”
Having allowed 25 goals in the past five games, the Canadiens have made no secret of their need to get back to basics in their own end. With a rare practice scheduled for Sunday morning, the Habs will look to return to the stingy defensive system that saw them go 26-9-5 through the first 40 games of the season.
“Defensively we have to be hard to play against,” concluded Diaz. “We have to be stronger in front of the net and those are things we have to do better the next three games to be ready for the playoffs. There’s time to fix that and we’re going to fix it.”
Shauna Denis is a writer for canadiens.com.
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