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Canadiens take advantage of continuity at camp

by Arpon Basu /

BROSSARD, Quebec -- It was nine months ago that the Montreal Canadiens hardly knew what continuity even meant.

Entering a shortened training camp prior to the start of the 2012-13 NHL season in January, the Canadiens had a new general manager, a new coaching staff and a few new players, but even the returning players had no idea what would be in store.

In fact, coach Michel Therrien couldn't have known exactly how things would work out with his line combinations when that camp began, hoping what he had drawn up while waiting for the lockout to end would ultimately click.

As it turned out, what Therrien accomplished worked wonders. The Canadiens shot out of the gates with a 6-2-0 record en route to a second place finish in the Eastern Conference.

As much as last season's camp was a brush with the unknown, Therrien's 2013-14 training camp is all about continuity.

"Last year was really demanding and a lot of credit has to go to the players, because they really bought what we were trying to teach," Therrien said this week. "There are going to be a few adjustments to the way we're going to play. But the players like the way we play and we're not going to want to change that too much, we're just going to tweak a couple of things that most people probably won't see, but from the inside we think we'll have a little bit more success."

Through the first two days of training camp, Therrien's forward lines and main defense pairings haven't changed, providing a good idea of what his team may look like in the season opener Oct. 1 against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"I'm a true believer that combinations need to get used to working together, and I want to give them a fair chance," Therrien said. "I've got other little plans in the back of my mind, but I have that vision. I hope it's going to work. If it doesn't work, I have different situations I'm thinking about that I might try during the camp. But what we saw, that's a vision we have and we really hope it's going to work."

For the veteran players in camp, this is a welcomed development.

By the end of last season, Therrien had found four sets of duos up front that worked, and he mostly stuck with them over the second half. Tomas Plekanec and captain Brian Gionta made up one; David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty were another; Lars Eller and Alex Galchenyuk were a third; and Ryan White and Travis Moen anchored the fourth line. Sprinkled in were wings Rene Bourque, Brendan Gallagher, Brandon Prust, Michael Ryder and Colby Armstrong (the final two no longer with the team).

In this camp, Plekanec and Bourque have been playing with rookie Christian Thomas while Gionta recovers from a torn biceps muscle sustained during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Desharnais and Pacioretty are playing with newcomer Daniel Briere; Eller and Galchenyuk have been playing with Gallagher; and White and Moen are skating with Prust.

"Every time you can be matched up with some guys who you had some chemistry with in the past it's going to make things easier," Eller said. "I think everybody prefers it that way. Everyone can see that the lines are kind of drawn up already, and I think that's a good thing so we can create chemistry early."

"I'm a true believer that combinations need to get used to working together, and I want to give them a fair chance."
-- Canadiens coach Michel Therrien

Nurturing that chemistry was of particular importance for Eller's line. He and Galchenyuk finished last season on a tear, combining for 25 points over the final 14 games, a run that came to an end when Eller sustained a concussion and fractured facial bones in Game 1 of the playoff series against the Ottawa Senators.

The fact Eller is coming back from that injury, and Galchenyuk and Gallagher are entering their second season, led Therrien to keep them together through the early part of camp.

"I didn't want to touch that line too much with Eller, Alex and Galllagher," Therrien said. "They had success together at the end of the season, they played very well. So for their confidence I wanted them to play together to get that chemistry back they had last season."

For White, seeing the line combinations before Thursday's first on-ice session was reassuring. He's never entered an NHL training camp playing on an established line, and though he is not taking that spot for granted, it does allow him to feel a certain degree of comfort he's never had before.

"I think he's sending the message that we have a few days here to get ready and make sure you get going," White said. "We know as veterans no spot is sealed, I come in here every year ready to fight for my job and I know there are young guys here champing at the bit to get in here and show what they can do. It's some nice respect from coach to show us that it's our spot to lose."

The defense has not benefited from the same level of familiarity because of a knee injury to Alexei Emelin, but the pairings have remained consistent through two days on the ice. P.K. Subban has his old partner Josh Gorges back, and Andrei Markov is playing with Raphael Diaz, just as he did on the Canadiens power play in the early part of last season. Free agent acquisition Douglas Murray spent two days playing with veteran Francis Bouillon.

It is up front where the continuity is most apparent, and Eller has a good idea of why that is.

"Last year that was the strength of our team, it was our identity that we had three lines that could score and we were really good 5-on-5," he said. "If we can keep that going it will take us long way."

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