BROSSARD – With only 17 games remaining in the regular season, back-to-back tilts against the Penguins and Bruins on tap this week and a string of players sidelined due to injury, the Canadiens sought out a familiar face over the weekend to address a few key areas of concern.
On Saturday, the Habs claimed 36-year-old Jeff Halpern off waivers from the New York Rangers in an attempt to bolster a faceoff percentage and penalty-kill efficiency that ranks 22nd and 18th in the NHL respectively.
For Halpern, who played just over nine minutes a night in 30 games this season for the Blue Shirts, the opportunity to return to Montreal was met with great enthusiasm given the forward’s sense of ease with many of his new teammates and the city in general, having suited up for the Canadiens during the 2010-11 season.
“When everything happened, I was excited it was [Montreal],” said Halpern, who’s won 56.7 percent of his draws on the year. “I think starting from last Friday when it kind of was finishing in New York, as far as teams I can go to, this was a place I loved to play and it's a lot of the same guys and it's a special place to play. I've always thought it beforehand playing here, and to get another chance here is a special thing.”
Head coach Michel Therrien was equally as pleased about Halpern’s arrival, noting that regardless of a team’s win-loss record, the addition of a player with almost 900 NHL games under his belt is invaluable for the stretch drive.
“He’s a player we’re very happy to have in our lineup,” confirmed Therrien, who had Halpern skating alongside Travis Moen and Gabriel Dumont at practice on Monday. “He’s capable of doing a great job killing penalties, he’s great in the faceoff circle, he’s got a ton of experience in the NHL. He brings depth that we’re looking for with the injuries we’ve got right now.”
Halpern, who collected 11 goals and 26 points in 72 games in his previous stint with the Habs, will be put to the test come Tuesday night when the Canadiens go up against the league’s second-ranked power-play in Pittsburgh. Winners of 12 straight games, the Penguins should provide the 6’0, 190 lb. forward with the perfect opportunity to showcase his playing capabilities against a dynamic offense led by the league’s leading point-getter in Sidney Crosby.
“I think that when you're a team that's on top of the conference, even before playoffs, there are always certain measuring sticks,” said Halpern. “Playing Pittsburgh on the hot streak that they're on, playing Boston, even with a couple of injuries they're always considered one of the best teams in the league. I think it's a good measuring stick for this team and for myself personally. Sometimes, it's good to just jump into the fire like that.”
Defenseman Josh Gorges believes Halpern will prove to be an important addition to the Habs roster both now and down the road, citing not only his 13 years of NHL experience, but his comfort level in a variety of roles and situations.
“I think he's going to be a big impact for us on the penalty kill,” said Gorges, mentioning that the timing of Halpern’s arrival was ideal given the Habs’ upcoming opponents. “First and foremost, he's great on faceoffs which I think is important in every penalty kill to have that puck off the opening faceoff. He's a veteran guy that doesn't get rattled on things. He's been doing this for a long time, and he's experienced with the way we kill penalties as well. So, I think him coming in will solidify a few things for us up the middle.”
Like Gorges, captain Brian Gionta praised Halpern’s usability throughout the lineup as an asset in the Canadiens arsenal with an important series of games ahead.
“He's a veteran guy. He's a great right-handed centreman for us,” said Gionta. “He's going to fill in a great role for us. You can move him up and down the lineup. You can move him to wing if you need to, so he's a guy that's played in a lot of games and he's got a lot of experience all over the ice.”
For a long-time pro like Halpern, who’s also played in Washington, Los Angeles, Dallas and Tampa Bay, putting that vast hockey knowledge to work under Therrien's system is something the District of Columbia native is looking forward to.
“It seems like a good mix,” said Halpern. “It's an exciting group to come back to as far as the guys that have been here and [an opportunity] to play with the new players.”
Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.
Words from the room
Top 5 – Second stint with the Canadiens