BROSSARD, Que. - The Olympic break has been very beneficial to the injury-riddled Montreal Canadiens.
The Habs returned to practice Wednesday with injured players Benoit Pouliot, Andrei Kostitsyn and Paul Mara skating alongside their teammates, a welcome sight for a team that had relied heavily on call-ups from the American Hockey League in the weeks leading up to the break.
Habs coach Jacques Martin expects all three to be in uniform for Montreal's first game Tuesday night in Boston.
The bad news is that top goal scorer Michael Cammalleri and power play specialist Marc-Andre Bergeron were not on the ice Wednesday, and Martin said they are "definitely" out for the game against the Bruins.
"We're still shorthanded, we'll still be missing bodies when we start next Tuesday," Martin said.
"The concern is you hope players that have been injured don't take too long to get back. Especially in the case of Andrei, he's been out for two months. You just hope he can find his intensity and find his timing quickly."
Kostitsyn's last game was Dec. 31 in Florida, when a hit from Panthers defenceman Keith Ballard injured his left knee. At the time he had scored 10 goals in his previous 14 games and looked to have come out of a season-long slumber playing alongside Cammalleri and Tomas Plekanec.
Pouliot was similarly hot when he played his last game in Boston on Feb. 4, scoring 11 goals in his last 18 games as he settled in on a line with Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta. He's been listed with an upper body injury, and when asked Wednesday whether it was a rib injury Pouliot would only admit that it's "in that area."
He arrived in a trade with the Minnesota Wild on Nov. 23 suffering from a wrist injury, one that cost him an additional 15 games. Pouliot said he wasn't shooting the puck with any authority on Wednesday, but hopes to be back in time for Tuesday's game in Boston.
"It's been three weeks since I've been on the ice, so that was good for me," Pouliot said. "We have five days of practice ahead of us, so that should be more than enough time for me."
Though Pouliot said he spent his week off in Montreal re-habilitating his injury, his perfectly bronzed face suggested otherwise. He wasn't the only one of the Canadiens who looked like they took advantage of the time off to soak up some sun, but for defenceman Ryan O'Byrne the break was much more significant.
O'Byrne's mother Lorelei passed away Jan. 28 after a lengthy bout with cancer at the age of 56. O'Byrne had taken 10 days off in early January to be with his mother in his native Victoria, but he was with the team - and far away from his family - when he heard the news of her passing.
He played in the next eight games with the Canadiens, but went home immediately after their final game Feb. 13 to be with his family.
Lorelei O'Byrne's memorial service in Victoria was on Feb. 16, and O'Byrne says having time to properly deal with his emotions was very cleansing for him.
"It was a really nice service, we had the memorial and a reception, it was just a really good day celebrating my mom's life," O'Byrne said. "It was nice to get some closure, and obviously to see my dad and sister. The break was just really convenient the way it worked out, giving me a chance to see my family and not miss any more games.
"I was just kind of floating out here and hadn't had a chance to totally deal with it. So this was a chance to get home, deal with some of the emotions and grieve a bit. It was a very, very important break for me."
O'Byrne said having that time off will allow him to focus on the final stretch of 19 games with the Habs in a fierce battle for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Canadiens sit eighth in the east with 64 points, with three teams within two points, and all holding games in hand.
Defenceman Josh Gorges has set the bar high for the Canadiens coming out of the break.
"I think if we shoot for winning two out of every three games, that will put us in a good position," Gorges said.
Having a totally healthy lineup - something the Canadiens have had for one game all season - would be a great help in reaching such an ambitious goal.
Note: Martin said that with the return of Pouliot, Kostitsyn and Mara, the Canadiens are not likely to need any of the Hamilton Bulldogs players who were in Montreal when the Olympic break hit. That means defenceman P.K. Subban, who had fans chanting his name in the Bell Centre in the Canadiens last game Feb. 13, will probably not be called back up...