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Canadiens ready to welcome back Jeff Halpern

by Arpon Basu
BROSSARD, Que. -- The Montreal Canadiens look like they are ready to welcome a highly motivated veteran back to their lineup in the person of Jeff Halpern, a versatile defensive presence at forward who brings a hunger to win that is somewhat unique in the NHL.

Halpern missed the first three games of Montreal's Eastern Conference Quarterfinal with the Boston Bruins and the last four games of the regular season with a lower-body injury.

But Halpern skated on right wing on a line with Lars Eller and Travis Moen at practice Wednesday, suggesting he'll be in the lineup for Thursday night's pivotal Game 4 at the Bell Centre.

"I feel good," Halpern said when asked if he was at 100 percent.

Halpern, 35, is a valuable veteran presence on the club, with 792 career games played with the Canadiens, L.A. Kings, Tampa Bay Lightning, Dallas Stars and Washington Capitals, the team he entered the League with in 1999 as a 23-year-old rookie out of Princeton University.

But one area where he is definitely lacking in experience is playoff success.

Halpern has only played in the postseason on five occasions, and not once has he ever advanced past the first round.

"I'd love to win a Cup, obviously, and you don't do that if you're not in the second round, let alone beyond that," Halpern said. "I think I was told by Ulf Dahlen my first year that you never really know when you'll get another chance to make a good run for a Cup. Every year I've been on great teams that have fallen short."

Halpern has had a couple of opportunities where he thought he had that chance to achieve every player's dream.

In 2003 he was on a Capitals team led by Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang, Sergei Gonchar and Peter Bondra. The Caps finished one point behind the Lightning in the regular-season standings but jumped out to a 2-0 lead in their first-round playoff series – just like the current Canadiens did against the Bruins – before losing the next four games.

"I thought we were going to win the Cup that year," Halpern said ruefully.
Another time was in 2007 with the Mike Modano-led Stars when they entered a seventh game against the Vancouver Canucks – only to lose the game 4-1.

Nevertheless, that Game 7 remains the longest playoff run of Halpern's career -- a circumstance he is very eager to change.

"It would be great to part of a long playoff run," he said. "I know what it's like to shake a team's hand at the end of a series, and it's not a great feeling. I understand I'm a lot closer to the end of my career than I was at age 23 as a rookie, and I know my chances are going to be fewer. This is a great opportunity."

Halpern's acumen on the penalty kill should help, though the Canadiens are perfect on 11 opportunities through three games thus far, but it's his ability to win faceoffs that would probably be most valuable to Montreal right now.

Halpern's 56.9 faceoff percentage was tops on the Canadiens in the regular season, but his 594 faceoffs taken did not qualify him for the League leaders.

The Canadiens have been getting eaten alive by the Bruins in the faceoff circle, in particular their top two centers Patrice Bergeron (65.5 per cent) and David Krejci (55.3 per cent).

Seeing as it was Eller who has drawn the matchup against Krejci on a regular basis, having such an accomplished faceoff man on his wing should allow him to be more aggressive on draws, knowing if he gets kicked out of the circle Halpern can come in and win it for him.

"I'm starting to figure Krejci out a little bit," said Eller, who only took two faceoffs in Game 3 as coach Jacques Martin elected to shift him on the fly more often than not. "But having Halpern there is a good safety to have."

The arrival of Halpern will likely mean that Benoit Pouliot will be a healthy scratch. Pouliot did not take a regular turn on any of the Canadiens' four forward lines at Wednesday's practice. He also took an ill-advised charging penalty at the end of the first period in Game 3 and was challenged to a fight by Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference immediately afterward.
Pouliot played just two shifts in the second period and none in the third as Martin shortened his bench to try and tie the game up.

After the game, Martin was asked in French if Pouliot had gotten hurt in the fight or if there was simply no room for him in his rotation.

Martin shrugged and responded, "No, he wasn't hurt."

On Wednesday, however, Martin decided to take the high road when asked what Pouliot can do to improve.

"Those are issues that I don't need to discuss," Martin said. "I talk to the players as far as their performance."
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