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Gill set for game No. 1,000 as Habs visit Pens

by Corey Masisak

CANADIENS (1-3-1) at PENGUINS (4-2-2)


Season Series: This is the first meeting of the season. Montreal won three of four meetings last season, though one victory came in a shootout. Before that, the Canadiens knocked the then-defending Cup champs out of the 2010 playoffs in a seven-game second-round series.

Big story : Montreal defenseman Hall Gill, who won the Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 2009, will play his 1,000th career NHL game as he and the struggling Canadiens try to right the ship.

Team scope:

Canadiens: The Canadiens are fresh off an 0-2-1 home stand and have only a win at MTS Centre on Winnipeg's opening night to this point. Montreal is already five points back of improved Buffalo in the Northeast Division. Obviously goal prevention is in the spotlight with three of the team's top six defensemen injured; the Canadiens have allowed 12 goals during their three-game losing skid.

Carey Price was in the discussion for the Vezina Trophy last season, but he has an .885 save percentage in five games. His next win will be No. 100, but like the club he has lost three straight decisions. The Canadiens could also use more scoring, particularly from free-agent signing Erik Cole (one assist) and defenseman PK Subban (one assist).

Penguins: Pittsburgh keeps adding key players to the list of guys who aren't playing instead of welcoming people back, but didn't slow the team Tuesday night in Minnesota. The Penguins were without arguably their four best players (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury) and yet still defeated the Wild 4-2 to snap a three-game skid of their own.

A tough schedule early has been an issue for the Penguins, who have already played a League-high eight games and made two road trips to face Western Conference foes. Without Crosby and Malkin (not to mention Dustin Jeffrey, who would probably slot in on one of the top two lines if their place), free agent addition Richard Park centered one of Pittsburgh's top two lines in Minnesota.

When Letang has played -- he sat out Tuesday and will do so again on Thursday while serving a two-game suspension -- he's been fantastic, and several forwards have been exceeding expectations to help offset the loss of the superstars.

Who's hot: James Neal only scored one goal in 20 regular-season games and one more in seven postseason contests for the Penguins last season after arriving in a trade for defenseman Alex Goligoski, but entering Thursday's games he was tied for the League lead with six.

Injury report: The Canadiens are without one of their top forwards and half the defense corps. Michael Cammalleri is out because of a cut on his leg from a skate in a game Oct. 9 against Winnipeg, though coach Jacques Martin has said he could be back soon. The same cannot be said for defensemen Andrei Markov (knee surgery) and Chris Campoli (torn hamstring). Defenseman Jaroslav Spacek (bruised ribs) is also missing for the Canadiens. … Pittsburgh has been without top centers Crosby (concussion) all season and Malkin (sore knee) in five of the past six games. Defenseman Brooks Orpik (sports hernia) and forward Jeffrey (knee surgery) also have yet to play this season. Right wing Tyler Kennedy is also out with a concussion. This is the second half of Letang's two-game suspension for boarding Winnipeg's Alexander Burmistrov on Monday.

Stat pack: Pittsburgh's power play was ranked 30th out of 30 last season after Crosby went out with the concussion, converting at just 14 percent. Crosby isn't back yet, and Malkin has been missing a good bit but the Penguins look like a new club with the man advantage having connected seven times. Their strong work on the penalty kill has carried over -- Pittsburgh is tops in the NHL with a 96.3 percent kill rate.

Puck drop: Gill has played the last 148 of those 999 career games with the Canadiens, and he was a big part of their success in a surprise run to the conference finals in 2010. He spent eight of his 15 seasons with the Boston Bruins, but his one-plus campaigns in Pittsburgh were his most successful. He played in back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals, arriving in a lightly-publicized trade at the deadline in 2008 before forming a critical shutdown pairing with Rob Scuderi. In his only full season in Pittsburgh he helped the Penguins claim the Cup.

"When he was playing for the Leafs [in 2006-07 and 2007-08], some people probably thought he wouldn't play very much longer," Martin said. "He went to Pittsburgh and won a Cup, and I remember in his early days in Montreal he took a lot of abuse because of his speed. But he uses his size to his advantage, he has a good stick, he blocks a lot of shots and excels in a defensive role."

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