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Unique morning skate sets stage for Habs opener

by Arpon Basu

MONTREAL – Canadiens game day in Montreal -- particularly when the Toronto Maple Leafs are in town -- always has a special feeling to it.

The conversations you hear walking down the street and the sense of anticipation for that evening's game make it so the city is practically breathing hockey.

But Saturday's game day was just a little more special, as that feeling was transported inside the arena for the first time.

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The Canadiens opened Saturday's morning skate ahead of their season opener against the Maple Leafs to the public, with just more than 5,000 fans piling in to the Bell Centre to watch the Original Six rivals prepare for their clash.

"It was awesome. It made the morning skate fun," Canadiens defenseman Josh Gorges said. "There was energy in the air and you could just see the guys, the way they were skating and moving the puck, you could tell they were having fun. The excitement for tonight is building already."

The Canadiens benefited from the support of their fans, cheering when they saw goaltender Carey Price take the ice after he missed practice on Friday for some maintenance, thereby ensuring his presence in the Montreal goal Saturday evening.

The same couldn't be said for the Maple Leafs.

When head coach Randy Carlyle gathered his team by the boards to draw up a drill, the fans broke out into a chant of "Go Habs Go!" to try and drown out his instructions. Then when the huddle broke up, they were booed.

Carlyle said he was asked if he minded holding the skate in front of the fans, and he agreed because it was an opportunity to give something back to the public coming out of the lockout. And he says he even used the unfavorable circumstances to his advantage.

"We tried to use it as a tool for motivation," Carlyle said. "We tried to turn it around on them."

The environment for the skate only heightened the anticipation of the players, if that were even possible.

"It was great to see the fans come out," Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said. "As players, we live to play in these kinds of games. It's Saturday night in Montreal."

Gorges said he felt a sudden calm come over him as soon as he woke up Saturday to head down to the rink.

"It just felt, like, normal," he said. "It's game day again, I haven't had this feeling in a long time. It was great to wake up knowing I had to go get ready for a game."

There are three players for whom Saturday morning was not normal at all.

Forward Leo Komarov and defenseman Michael Kostka of the Maple Leafs and forward Alex Galchenyuk of the Canadiens will all be making their NHL debuts Saturday night.

Komarov, 25, has played in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia to this point in his career, while Kostka, 27, is an undrafted free agent with 341 career American Hockey League games under his belt.

Galchenyuk, the No. 3 pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, will be under the biggest microscope, as the Canadiens and their fans are eager to see how the 18-year-old forward will react to his first taste of NHL competition.

"We have to let him express his talent, and he's done that," Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien said. "I'm not worried."

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