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Gill, Mara bolster ravaged Montreal defense

by Robin Brownlee
CALGARY -- Any news that doesn't involve another injury to a defenseman is good news for the Montreal Canadiens, and they finally got some with appearances Friday by Hal Gill and Paul Mara in preparation for Sunday's 2011 Tim Horton's Heritage Classic against the Calgary Flames.

With Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges lost for the season, Jaroslav Spacek out and the Canadiens absorbing another blow when James Wisniewski was hit under the left eye by a Taylor Hall shot in the first period of Thursday's 4-1 loss in Edmonton, Gill and Mara skated in Montreal's defense pairings during Friday's practice at the Scotiabank Saddledome.

Gill, who has missed four games with an upper-body injury, took drills alongside P.K. Subban. Mara, who returns for his second tour with the Habs after being acquired Wednesday from Anaheim, skated in a pairing with Roman Hamrlik.

Both players are sights for sore eyes and welcome additions to a Montreal blue line that's endured more than its fair share of subtractions because of injuries.

"As you know, each team has challenges, a lot of injuries," said coach Jacques Martin. "I think it shows we have good depth in the organization. Some of our kids have come up and done a good job."

While Gill stopped short of declaring himself ready to return to action against the Flames, he took a regular turn in drills and will skate again Saturday when the Canadiens practice at McMahon Stadium.

"I hope so," Gill said when asked if he'll play Sunday. "I talked to the trainers and things feel good, so we'll leave it up to the coaches and the trainers and, hopefully, I can play."

Mara, 31, who played 42 games with Montreal last season and then signed with Anaheim as a free agent last September, arrived in time to play in Edmonton, but his equipment was delayed.

"It feels like I haven't left," Mara said. "The comfort zone is pretty easy out there, knowing the players, the coaching staff and the systems, it's going to be a pretty easy transition.

"It's part of the business. Sometimes, you go through a season with zero injuries. This year, the team has been ravaged with injuries. It's just part of the game. You deal with it. It gives other players a chance to step up."

With Wisniewski going down -- he travelled with the team to Calgary but seems doubtful for Sunday with the possibility he has sustained a fracture of the cheekbone -- the return of Mara is certainly timely.

"Paul's an experienced defenseman," Martin said. "We had Paul last year, Unfortunately he got injured three-quarters into the season and missed the last stretch of the season and playoffs. "He's an individual who is well-received by his teammates, well-appreciated by his teammates. He's got good size and he brings a physical presence to our blue line. He'll help us in the stretch here."

Between the injuries to Markov and Gorges and with Spacek not even on this three-game road trip, Martin's defense corps remains in flux, as it has throughout much of the season.

"It's a good building block for our team to go through some adversity," Gill said. "Get guys who haven't played as much to get out and get a lot of ice and feel good and make an impact on the team.

"I think that's what makes a team good is that when you have that adversity, you fight through it."

Subban has had to log heavy minutes as a rookie -- he played almost 30 minutes in Edmonton. Alexandre Picard and 22--year-old Yannick Weber, Martin's third pairing Friday, have been thrown into the fray. Roman Hamrlik has been a workhorse.

"We've had a number of injuries this year," Subban said. "In terms of my playing time, the way I've been used, I haven't been used like a first-year guy.

"I can't sit here and say that I've been playing rookie minutes. There's a lot of other rookies in the League, but I'm not sure how many play 28 or 29 minutes on some occasions."

Subban credits Gill with helping him take on a workload that's seeing him average 21:54 of ice time a night.

"For me, it's also remembering I have to learn every day," Subban said. "Come to the rink continuing to learn and never get ahead of myself because even when things are going well, there's going to be times when they're not going as well.

"If you do get ahead of yourself, it's going to be tough for you to rebound. Hal does a great job in terms of teaching me every day and teaching me also that you always have to improve. There's never a day off. That's how you get better. He's been a great leader for me."

As for Wisniewski, Martin deemed him day-to-day, and said he doesn't have definitive word on a possible fracture of the cheekbone.

"I think it's still yet to be determined," Martin said. "But I think it's in better shape than what we expected. The doctor said he will be re-evaluated (Saturday)."

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