CALGARY - Canada's western NHL clubs were long overdue for a visit from the Montreal Canadiens.
The Habs are in Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver this week for the first time in over three years. The NHL emphasized divisional play in its scheduling after the lockout season of 2004-'05, which meant one game a season or none at all between Montreal and the Canucks, Flames and Oilers the last three years.
But all six Canadian clubs face each other home and away this season for the first time since the lockout.
Calgary had the Canadiens on Monday, Edmonton gets them Wednesday and after a stop in Denver to face the Avalanche on Friday, Montreal concludes its Western Canadian swing Sunday versus the Canucks.
The novelty of Montreal finally returning to Calgary created a buzz around both dressing rooms during Monday's pre-game skates, partly because of the bilingual media horde that accompanies the Canadiens on the road.
There were a few fans at Pengrowth Saddledome clad in Les Habitants jerseys and watching the pre-game skate armed with digital and cellphone cameras. This is, after all, the year the Canadiens are celebrating their 100th anniversary.
"Especially in Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver, there's a lot of Montreal Canadiens fans so it's great to see them," Montreal winger Steve Begin said. "It's a long road trip, it's a long plane ride, but it's always fun."
Canadiens assistant captain Alex Kovalev was just relieved to meet a team other than the Boston Bruins.
"It's makes the season a little bit easier sometimes when you face a team you don't face many times," he explained. "Last year we faced Boston 16 or 17 times.
"It got to the point where I can't see them anymore."
Montreal went 0-3 on its last swing through Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver during the 2005-'06 season. The Canadiens look for a better record this time around, although they'd lost five consecutive road games upon their arrival in Calgary.
"We don't have a chance to see these guys a lot, so for our players it's a big change," Montreal head coach Guy Carbonneau said. "Sometimes you concentrate a little bit more when you play teams you don't play a lot because you don't know them."
Given constant scrutiny and hype surrounding the Canadiens in Montreal, Kovalev thought a trip to far-flung NHL destinations wasn't a bad thing.
"It's good a thing sometimes to go away from your hometown and away from parents and friends and get away from all the disturbance and focus on the hockey game," Kovalev explained. "Just to have all the guys together, sometimes it helps."
Calgary lost to the Canadiens in Montreal on Dec. 9. Players in both dressing rooms feel it's worth the extra time and travel to play in each other's cities.
"Last year we didn't even play them," Flames winger Matthew Lombardi said. "The year before, we went to Montreal and they didn't come to Calgary, so it's good for the fans.
"They get to see the Montreal Canadiens and the history and everything they've brought to the game, so it's definitely important."
There's no guarantee the home-and-away format between the Canadian clubs will remain as the league determines its schedule on a yearly basis. The NHL has looked at an 84-game schedule, however, that would accommodate more games between conferences.
Flames defenceman Cory Sarich feels the Canadian teams should play in each other's arenas at least once per season in the interest of fairness.
"Your advantage is home ice and when you have to go to somebody else's rink and play and you don't get the opportunity to face them on your home ice . . . I like to see things balanced out," he said. "If you want a competitive league, I think we need to have that."
NOTES - Prior to Monday's scheduled game, the last meeting between Montreal and Calgary at the Saddledome was a 3-2 Flames win Jan. 19, 2006. Two days later, Vancouver downed the Habs 6-2 at GM Place . . . Montreal's last stop in Edmonton was Dec. 15, 2005, when the Oilers prevailed 5-3 . . . The Canadiens haven't won a game in Vancouver since Nov. 30, 2000.ï¿½ï¿½