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Eller steps up for Habs

by Arpon Basu
BROSSARD, Que. – Just before the Montreal Canadiens left town Friday to play Game 5 against the Boston Bruins, they held an optional skate at their suburban practice facility.

But only one player who took part in the Canadiens' 5-4 overtime loss in Game 4 one night earlier decided to take that option -- rookie Lars Eller.

Eller was benched for the final 13 minutes of the third period of that game, so he may have simply wanted to make up for all that time spent on the bench.

But really, Eller probably wanted to sharpen his game a little in the hopes that he would be given a second chance in Saturday night's pivotal Game 5.

He was given that chance, and made the most of it by setting up the Canadiens tying goal by Jeff Halpern at 13:56 of the third period, playing what was quite possibly the shift of Eller's life at a point in the game where he was firmly nailed to the bench in the previous match.

Ultimately, Eller's effort and Halpern's goal did not pay off as the Canadiens lost 2-1 in Game 5 on a Nathan Horton goal in double overtime.

But nonetheless, head coach Jacques Martin took note of his rookie's bounce back effort.

"I talked to him, but that's just part of the maturing and learning process," Martin said Sunday after a brief team meeting on a day where all the players were given a day off from the media. "You always have to be prepared to do the job, but I like the way he responded."

The Canadiens' biggest advantage heading into this series with the Bruins was their playoff experience, but it was two rookies who left the biggest impression in that tough Game 5 loss, one that leaves the team facing elimination down 3-2 heading into Game 6 on Tuesday night at the Bell Centre.

Eller played nearly 22 minutes, had three shots on goal, was credited with six hits, won half of his 12 faceoffs and finished the night a plus-1. It was a truly exemplary night of work for a player who was in the coach's doghouse one game earlier, and perhaps gave a glimpse of what Canadiens fans can expect in the future from the 21-year-old acquired in the trade that sent last year’s playoff hero Jaroslav Halak to the St. Louis Blues.

But while Eller needed to put his Game 4 performance behind him, another rookie was looking to build on a breakout performance when he suited up for Game 5, and center David Desharnais did just that.

The diminutive Desharnais, generously listed at 5-foot-7, was given the task of shutting down the Bruins' Patrice Bergeron in the third period of Game 4 and thoroughly fulfilled his assignment, as Bergeron's line did not register a single shot on goal when matched up against Desharnais, Halpern and Tom Pyatt.

In the third period of Game 5, Desharnais was placed on the left wing of a line with Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta, marking perhaps the first time in his career where the 5-foot-11 Gomez was the tallest player on his line.

Except the addition of Desharnais gave the two former Stanley Cup winners a serious lift, and it could even be argued that it was the rookie who was the most dangerous player of the three.

"Before we started the playoffs I was hoping someone would elevate his game," Martin said. "He sparked that line. His ability to read the play, his skill level, his quickness and his compete level were very good (Saturday) night."

There is a question, however, whether or not Martin will be able to rely on those traits in Game 6. Desharnais reportedly hurt his knee at some point in the first overtime period on Saturday and played very sparingly from about the 13-minute mark onward. He played five more shifts the rest of the way but not one of them were longer than 26 seconds, and his final one was registered as being only one second long at 3:02 of the second overtime.

Martin would not confirm the injury to Desharnais, saying, "You'll be given the information when it's available," so it will be interesting to see whether he takes part in Monday's practice.

Another question mark floats around defenseman James Wisniewski, who missed virtually the entire third period Saturday and much of the first overtime before making a surprise return just before the midway point, nearly scoring the winner on his first shift back and taking a regular turn in the second overtime. He was on the ice with his regular partner Roman Hamrlik when Horton scored the winning goal.

Those two injuries will surely play a part in the lineup decisions Martin makes ahead of the do-or-die Game 6, but overall he said he's pleased with the way his team has performed even though the Canadiens have lost three straight games to blow a 2-0 series lead.

"You're disappointed and sad with the result, but I still think there were a lot of positives that came from the game, the way we battled, the way we created our chances," Martin said. "I'm confident because of the way we're playing. We'll make a couple of adjustments, but nothing major, and we'll be ready to battle."

As good as youngsters like Eller and Desharnais looked in Game 5, this would be a time where Martin would like to rely on a group of leaders that excelled in this situation a year ago.

Of the 18 Canadiens skaters who suited up for Game 5, 12 were on the team that won five straight elimination games in last spring's playoffs – winning three against the Washington Capitals when down 3-1 and two against the Pittsburgh Penguins when down 3-2, like they are now.

"That was last year," Martin said. "But there's no doubt that a big part of our leadership group and the veterans who were here last year faced that situation, so I think that's a big help. But when I look at how some of our kids played last night, that's encouraging as well."  

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