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Road trip looms for Canadiens before Winter Classic

by Arpon Basu

BROSSARD, Quebec -- The Montreal Canadiens are weeks away from playing in the 2016 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, but they will be taking an important step toward that New Year's Day game this week.

After the Canadiens host the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday (7:30 p.m. ET; CSN-CA, RDS, SNE) and the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday, they will not play another home game until Jan. 6, when the New Jersey Devils visit Bell Centre.

The Canadiens will play eight straight games on the road starting Saturday at the NHL-leading Dallas Stars, though they will be returning to Montreal for the Christmas break and following the Winter Classic against the Boston Bruins at Gillette Stadium on Jan. 1.

Still, it is a potentially season-altering stretch of games that will be a test in many ways for a team attempting to survive the loss of its best player.

Goaltender Carey Price could return from his lower-body injury not long after the Canadiens finally return to Bell Centre on Jan. 6. The question is where the team will be in the standings when he does.

The results this week against the Sharks and Kings could provide the Canadiens some added wiggle room in the standings in case things start to get difficult on the road, which makes them two important home games.

"I think playing these two teams, to my mind they're kind of like a measuring stick," captain Max Pacioretty said. "I think they both play pretty similar. They're big, strong teams and when they're winning draws it's really hard to get the puck back.

"We have to make sure we're on the right side of those [puck] battles. When we're winning battles and we have the puck, that's the only way we can have success against them. That's when we have success, when we have the puck. It sounds simple and stupid, but that's our game."

Montreal ended a four-game losing streak Saturday with a 3-1 win against the Ottawa Senators, seemingly providing some relief heading into this week. But the Canadiens feel a sense of urgency to maintain a certain level of play they displayed during that losing streak, particularly in losses to the Washington Capitals and Bruins where they controlled most of the game.

"I think this week is important for us to continue the momentum and trying to keep playing the way that we've been playing," defenseman P.K. Subban said. "I've been on the other end where you get outplayed by a team but you still win, and in the back of your mind you know in a seven-game series, your luck, it's probably going to run out. You're going to have to do things differently.

"For us, we're focused on the process. The result, sometimes you can't always control. But there's not a team in this League so far that we've played against that we don't feel we could have won the game. When we've lost, it's usually that we've beaten ourselves."

The Canadiens are starting to get healthier, with center Torrey Mitchell expected to return from an 11-game absence because of a lower-body injury against the Sharks and right wing Brendan Gallagher skating Monday for the first time since fracturing two fingers on his left hand Nov. 22.

Gallagher was supposed to be out until the first week of January, but he has not ruled out being back in time for New Year's Day and his presence on the ice Monday breaking in some of his Winter Classic equipment was an encouraging sign.

But Price definitely will not be back in time for the big game, and the situation in goal in his absence is in flux.

Mike Condon was a great story early in the season by going 6-0-2 in his first eight career NHL starts, but he's 3-5-1 since, allowing at least three goals in seven of those nine games.

Dustin Tokarski, who lost the backup job to Condon in training camp, will get his third straight start Tuesday against the Sharks after stopping 25 of 26 shots against the Senators.

"[Tokarski's] playing well so he deserves to be in there. Competition's always healthy," Condon said. "I feel great about my game, I haven't changed anything since the beginning of the year. I'm a little frustrated with the last three results, but that happens. I just have to keep moving forward, staying positive."

The idea of Condon, a native of Holliston, Mass., starting in the Winter Classic at Gillette Stadium about 20 minutes from his childhood home, was starting to gather momentum. The game is still far away, but the assumption that Condon will start on New Year's Day is no longer quite as solid as it once was.

"There's always competition in the NHL, but it's a healthy competition," coach Michel Therrien said. "We like what we see from Dustin. He's playing solid, playing with confidence."

The Winter Classic is fast approaching for the Canadiens, who have played in outdoor games before, but never one of this magnitude. The crew filming Road to the Winter Classic, which debuts Wednesday on Epix, has been constantly around the team providing a reminder of the imminence of the event.

The final reminder will come Thursday when the Canadiens leave Bell Centre for the final time in 2015. Closing out the calendar year with two wins at home can make that long road to Gillette Stadium seem a bit less ominous.

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