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Canadiens open key weekend in Pittsburgh

by John Kreiser

CANADIENS (17-21-8) at PENGUINS (25-17-4)


Last 10: Montreal 4-5-1; Pittsburgh 4-6-0

Season Series: It's the third of four meetings this season. Pittsburgh has won the first two, 3-1 at home on Oct. 20 and 4-3 in overtime in Montreal on Nov. 26.

Big Story: While the Penguins are managing to put up enough points even without Sidney Crosby to keep themselves in the top eight in the East, the Canadiens reach the last weekend before the All-Star break in dire straits. Montreal comes to Consol Energy Center in 13th place in the East, 10 points behind eighth-place Florida and facing back-to-back road games at Pittsburgh and Toronto. Anything less than a sweep could make a playoff berth next to impossible.

Team Scope:

Canadiens: The franchise that once forced the NHL to change the rules on serving penalties because it was so good on the power play now can't find the net with the extra man. The Canadiens went 0-for-7 against Washington, is 0-for-13 in their last three games and rank last in the NHL on the power play at 12.3 percent.

"We have to be able to get more pucks to the net. We have to be able to outnumber them temporarily and grab rebounds to get those second and third chances," coach Randy Cunneyworth said. "We had a long meeting (Wednesday) morning and I talked with everyone on our power-play units. We have two units and if they're not performing, we'll move around a few of the guys."

Penguins: To say that Evgeni Malkin has stepped up his game in the absence of Crosby would be an understatement. The 2009 Art Ross Trophy winner had a pair of goals in Thursday night's 4-1 win against the Rangers in New York, moving him past Vancouver's Henrik Sedin into first place in the scoring race with 54 points in only 39 games.

"Everyone plays harder when Sid is out, but we don't think about injuries," said Malkin, who has seven goals in the Penguins' last four games -- all wins, following a six-game losing streak. "We play our system, we know how to play. We just maybe try to play better defensively."

Who's Hot: Malkin has goals in four consecutive games and is plus-8 during that span. He has scored 14 times in the Penguins' last 16 games, and has 10 goals and 25 points in his 20 regular-season games against the Canadiens.

Injury Report: Montreal is without captain Brian Gionta, who's recuperating from surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle, as well as defensemen Andrei Markov (knee) and Ryan White (groin). Pittsburgh still doesn't know when Crosby (concussion-related problems) will be back. The Penguins are also without center Jordan Staal and defenseman Simon Despres (knee), as well as forward Arron Asham (concussion).

Stat Pack: The Canadiens have lost six shootouts, the most in the NHL, including all five at home. … Montreal is 4-9-1 since Randy Cunneyworth replaced Jacques Martin as coach last month.

Puck Drop: Pittsburgh did get a boost on Thursday with the return of defenseman Kris Letang, who hadn't played since Nov. 26 due to a concussion suffered in the win against the Canadiens. Letang came back after being hit in the head to score the OT winner, but was sidelined with a broken nose and concussion.

"I don't think I was perfect in the game," Letang said after playing 24:17 in his return. "There are some little things I need to get used to. I'm going to go from there and keep going."

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