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Habs hope Wisniewski's return invigorates power play

by Arpon Basu
BROSSARD, Que. -- The Montreal Canadiens are starting to get healthy -- or at least healthier.

Defensemen Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges remain out for the season with knee injuries, but power-play quarterback James Wisniewski was at practice Tuesday after missing two games with a bout of strep throat and he'll be in uniform against the rival Boston Bruins on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET, VERSUS, TSN, RDS).

Coach Jacques Martin also announced that injured sniper Michael Cammalleri -- out since Jan. 18 with a shoulder injury -- should be back practicing with the club by the end of the week.

Their returns can't come too soon for the Canadiens as both are key members of a Montreal power play mired in an 0-for-22 drought over the past five games.

Just bringing Wisniewski and his booming shot from the point back for Wednesday's key divisional matchup in Boston should help.

"That threat of a shot, regardless of whether he's taking it or not, you have to respect it," Canadiens captain Brian Gionta said. "They have to step higher on him to respect that shot, so it will open up ice somewhere else. It's just a matter of us finding it."

Wisniewski was back at his regular spot alongside veteran Roman Hamrlik at practice, while he'll line up next to rookie defenseman P.K. Subban on the Canadiens' first power-play unit.

With 2 goals and 11 assists in 15 games with Montreal since joining them following a Dec. 28 trade with the New York Islanders, Wisniewski is tied with Tomas Plekanec for the most points on the team over that span.

"It helps our power play, no doubt," Martin said of Wisniewski's return. "His ability to shoot the puck and his vision has been a big part of the success of our power play."

Wisniewski said he has gotten strep throat twice a year for as long as he can remember, and he has no idea why.

"In French, if you say the word 'sick' it means you're mentally ill, so they always say the flu," Wisniewski said to explain the original explanation for his absence. "But I get strep throat about twice a year, around February and around October every year. I usually catch it in time. I know when I'm getting it, I know my symptoms. This time I was about a day late so it put me out. If I catch it any later, I've been out 10 days before."

He said he's been working with a nutritionist in the New York area to try and explain the clockwork-like nature of the sickness, and he's eager to figure it out.

"I'm kind of curious to know why this happens twice a year," he said.

For now, all that's important to the Canadiens is that it doesn't come back again until next October, because Wisniewski's importance to the team is undeniable judging by its 9-3-3 record with him in the lineup.

But the struggles of the power play pre-date Wisniewski's illness, and that's where he feels Cammalleri's absence is most felt.

"He's a huge threat off the half wall shooting the puck, and teams have to look to shut him down as well. With his presence lost, teams can key on the point shots and try to take those away," Wisniewski said. "They're pressuring the top a little bit more and creating some havoc, not giving us time to set up. These two games coming up are huge and points are getting harder and harder to get. So we need to turn this power play around because that's going to help us win games."

After going 4-for-9 on the power play in the first two games Cammalleri missed, the current 0-for-22 slide began.

But Martin is not willing to simply chalk it up to the absence of a single player.
"That threat of a shot, regardless of whether he's taking it or not, you have to respect it." -- Brian Gionta on James Wisniewski

"Sure we miss him, but we miss Markov as well," Martin said. "A power play is successful when five guys really apply themselves to put into practice some of the key concepts of a power play. When you're talking about the man-advantage, it's really 2-on-1 hockey, it's puck movement, it's player movement, it's reading what the opposition gives you. We have to be better than we've been lately."

The Canadiens could tie the Bruins in points with a win Wednesday, though Boston would remain first in the Northeast -- and third in the conference -- because it holds a game in hand.

Montreal has won all three matchups with Boston this season, but the three wins have come by a combined four goals, and no one on the Canadiens expects a pushover game.

"It's obviously a huge game for us, they're huge points and it will have a big impact on the standings," Gionta said. "We're all aware of that."

The two teams are coming off losses, but they both are riding high of late, with the Bruins boasting a 9-4-0 record in their last 13 games and the Canadiens 10-3-3 in their last 16.

The fact Montreal has managed to make this push while missing Markov, Gorges and -- for the most part -- Cammalleri is somewhat baffling, but Martin feels the resiliency of his team is borne out of necessity.

"It's the level of competition," he said. "If you look at the number of teams involved for a race for a playoff spot, there are very few teams eliminated. In order to be successful, you've got to play hard."
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