As a former Canadiens captain who raised the Stanley Cup here and as an assistant coach that many in this area credit for playing a large role in Montreal's run to the Eastern Conference Finals two years ago, Kirk Muller
's return to the city Monday night behind the bench of the visiting Carolina Hurricanes
will be the overriding storyline.
But that's exactly what Muller doesn't want.
"I don't want it to be about me, it's about them," Muller said of his Hurricanes players, a group that has collected points in 10 of its last 12 games (6-2-4). "We have a lot of things going right now as far as how we're playing, the style we're playing, the identity of our group, our top players are playing really well. So it shouldn't be about me, it's their time. It's a fun place to play, visiting teams love coming in here to play for a reason, it's a great hockey town. I just hope they play tonight the way they've been playing the last 15 games."
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Muller's return coincides with Canadiens head coach Randy Cunneyworth
experiencing his finest hour since being given the job Dec. 17, or 19 days after Muller was hired by Carolina GM Jim Rutherford on Nov. 28.
The Canadiens are riding a four-game winning streak and are seeking to stretch it to a season-high five games Monday night, reviving the dormant playoff hopes of this city.
During Muller's five years as an assistant in Montreal it was widely assumed he would never be a candidate for the head job because he didn't speak French. Then the Canadiens surprised their fans -- and upset more than a few of them -- when they hired the equally unilingual Cunneyworth to replace Jacques Martin.
Muller, who worked with Cunneyworth at last season's Canadiens training camp, felt for him during the ensuing firestorm that surrounded his hiring and commended the way he has managed to come out of it.
"I'm sure it was tough for him going through everything he did," Muller said. "But he was very poised, just went about his business, and he's got the team turned around. So kudos to him for going through all that and staying low-key and getting the team turned around."
Did Muller see the unexpected development of Cunneyworth's hiring in Montreal as a missed opportunity for himself?
Not for a second.
"I did five years here and I just thought it was the right time to move on to be a head coach," Muller said. "Milwaukee and Nashville gave me that opportunity, and they were awesome to give me that chance and allow me to leave. Jimmy Rutherford in Carolina has been great, and when I talked to him I just thought it was a perfect spot for me to start. I'm really enjoying it."
After a bumpy 2-6-2 start to his tenure in Carolina, Muller has the Hurricanes playing their best hockey of the season. Carolina has gone 10-6-5 in its last 21 games, a gaudy .610 points percentage that has been largely fuelled by the re-emergence of captain Eric Staal
, who has 21 points and an even plus/minus rating in his last 18 games.
"At the time he came, he brought a fresh outlook, a fresh opinion," said Hurricanes star Jeff Skinner
, who struggled somewhat since his return from a concussion on Jan. 15 with 5 points in 10 games. "He obviously brings a lot of energy and excitement to the rink, and I think you can see it in our game. It's an aggressive, up-ice, in-your-face style of game. It's how he approaches the game."
While Muller insists he doesn't want to make this game about him, Skinner says he and his teammates understand the importance of leaving Montreal with a win for their head coach.
"Every game's important now getting down to the last couple of months of the season, but obviously it means a little bit more to him," Skinner said. "Guys are aware of it, I don't think anyone needs to be told. It's exciting for him, and as players it's not hard to get excited to play here."
"We have a lot of things going right now as far as how we're playing, the style we're playing, the identity of our group, our top players are playing really well. So it shouldn't be about me, it's their time. It's a fun place to play, visiting teams love coming in here to play for a reason, it's a great hockey town."
-- Hurricanes' coach Kirk Muller
One Hurricanes player who is very familiar with Muller's coaching is former Canadiens defenseman Jaroslav Spacek
, who is also playing his first game in Montreal since he was traded to Carolina for Tomas Kaberle
on Dec. 9.
"He's showed them they can win if they work hard and make sure they follow the system," Spacek said. "They were losing those games by one goal a lot, and now they're starting to win them. So I think it was a big acquisition to get Kirk so he can show them they can win."
Spacek made some headlines in Montreal last month when he gave a radio interview calling the Canadiens situation "a mess" and expressing how happy he was to be gone.
He didn't necessarily back down from those comments, but he did try to explain them a bit further Monday.
"The team wasn't playing well, we were losing, and the whole atmosphere around us was kind of bad," Spacek said. "But I was outside the lineup (due to injury), that was the main thing. I wanted to come and play, but before I got the chance, I was traded. That was kind of the sad part of it. But I'm happy for the guys, they've turned it around and started to play better. But we better stop them today."
Spacek said that bad atmosphere provided him with the other end of the spectrum when it comes to playing hockey in Montreal.
"The fun is (taken) away from the game," he said. "This city is all about hockey; one of the best things that can happen -- and it happened to me -- is to have a good year and enjoy the fun and appreciation from the people."
While both Spacek and Muller fully enjoyed that "fun and appreciation" while they were in Montreal, they will both be extremely motivated to put a stop to it Monday night.