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Sopel hopes to boost Montreal PK against Carolina

by Arpon Basu
MONTREAL -- The Montreal Canadiens will be welcoming a much-needed addition while the Carolina Hurricanes adjust without their star player when the two teams collide Saturday night in a key Eastern Conference matchup.

The game will be the Canadiens debut for defenseman Brent Sopel, a penalty-killing and shot-blocking specialist acquired Thursday from the Atlanta Thrashers.

Sopel won't have to worry about facing Eric Staal, as the Hurricanes captain left late in the second period of Friday night's 4-1 win against Pittsburgh after being hit by new Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen.

"He's a big-minute guy and our lead offensive player," said Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice, who reiterated his belief that Staal will be back in time for Tuesday's game against Florida. "But we scored a goal and we were 1-0 without him in the third, so we'll go from there."

For the Canadiens, there is the possibility that Carey Price -- who was sent home from the morning skate with a case of the flu -- will not be able to start in goal and that Alex Auld would start a second straight game.

The arrival of Sopel and injury to Staal could not come at a much better time for the Canadiens, who are in the midst of a 2-5-2 run where penalty killing has been a major issue. Staal leads the Hurricanes with 22 power-play points and 9 power-play goals this season, while Sopel was Atlanta's most-used penalty killer and is among the leading shot-blockers in the League.

"Penalty killing is my role now, so I'm looking forward to the challenge," Sopel said Saturday morning. "Special teams wins and loses you hockey games. Obviously the penalty killing has been struggling a little bit here, so I'm hoping I can come in and give them a little boost."

It was Sopel's first introduction to the Montreal media since Thursday's trade, and he faced a phalanx of television cameras, microphones and notepads.

It was, to put it mildly, a change of pace from what he was accustomed to in Atlanta.

"Coming from Atlanta to here is both ends of the spectrum," Sopel said. "I'm looking forward to it because obviously the fans -- when you're winning it's great and when you're losing they're all over you, but at the end of the day they care. They want to win, as we do."

Sopel will play on the third defense pairing for the Canadiens with rookie Yannick Weber, who will be forced to switch to the left side because both he and Sopel shoot right-handed.

Weber was preferred over veteran Paul Mara, acquired in a trade with Anaheim on Feb. 16, and Alexandre Picard -- but those three will likely be battling for ice time from here to the end of the season with the acquisition of Sopel.

"As a young guy you always have to prove something, every game there's something to prove," Weber said. "If I'm going to back to playing the left side, I always have to prove something to stay in the lineup. I'm not the old veteran guy. That's how it is in this business, so it's normal to have some pressure from other guys."

Sopel said he has long watched the Canadiens from afar, and the feeling he will have just prior to this game being played is one he will always remember.

"As a kid growing up watching all the great teams and great players that came through this organization, that was the first thing I thought of - coming in here, putting the jersey on and playing in front of the home crowd for the first time," Sopel said. "The history behind it speaks for itself."

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