VANCOUVER - Canucks forward Chris Higgins couldn't have picked a better time to find his groove then with his former team the Montreal Canadiens set to visit.
After missing nine games with various injuries this year, Higgins has been reunited on the Canucks’second line with centre Ryan Kesler and winger David Booth.
On Thursday the“Amex Line”–all three players are American–combined for 16 shots on net and were in on two of the goals in Vancouver’s 3-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets.
“I was excited to play with those guys,”said Higgins.“It’s an important line for us to get going down the stretch.”
Saturday's game between Vancouver and Montreal is the only meeting between the two clubs this season. Last year Vancouver dropped both games, 2-0 in Montreal and 3-2 at home. Though the Habs are struggling, the relevance of the Original Six club’s rare visit to Rogers Arena is not lost on the players.
“It’s always special to play against them,”said Higgins, Montreal’s first-round choice in 2002.“I still have some friends there. We don’t play them too often so you like to make it count.”
Higgins, who had a career-high 52 points in 2007-08 while playing for the Canadiens, has the skills to be a top-six forward now that he’s healthy from a staph infection.
“His battle level, to get to loose pucks, to win battles when he has it and get the puck out of our own end, to keep it in the offensive zone, without a doubt he’s been one of our hardest working players since Day One this year,”said Vancouver head coach Alain Vigneault.
“His skill set, he has speed, he’s tenacious on the puck, good in the corners and he’s a great disher too,”added Kesler.“We feed off each other well.”
The Canucks roster is scattered with Francophone players that relish every opportunity to take on Montreal.
“I watched them growing up and playing against them is always special,”said Alex Burrows.“I know people are watching the game Saturday night. That’s all people do back home–watch the Habs on Saturday night, have a few beers and enjoy the game.”
Despite Thursday's win in Edmonton, Montreal remains in the Eastern Conference basement and third-worst overall in the NHL.
Still, there are not a team to be taken lightly.
“They have a new coach and a few injuries that hurt their team but they’re still a team that competes hard,”said Burrows.“Last night they came into Edmonton and won a big game so we can’t take anything for granted.”
While Burrows and the rest of the Quebecois Canucks may look forward to playing the Canadians, goaltender Carey Price also enjoys coming back to B.C. to play.
“Obviously I’ll have a lot of people here, so it's nice to be back,”said Price, a native of Williams Lake.“We only come out here once a year, so it’s held the same feeling every time I come back here.”
If Montreal will have a chance to beat the Canucks, second in both the Western Conference and overall, they’ll need to shut down Vancouver’s power play.
However,that hasn’t proven too difficult for opposing teams as of late. Vancouver is five for its last 52 opportunities since Jan. 7 against the Boston Bruins. To shake things up, the coach has moved Kesler from the screening position to the point and promoted Burrows to the top power-play unit.
“If you look at the way our power play has been since the Boston game, the percentage we have right now with both units, I think it’s fair to say I can try whatever I want,”said Vigneault.“Last year with Ryan in front of the net we were number one in the league. That job he was doing there was extremely important for our team."
“I get the puck a little more,”said Kesler of his new role.“My job’s to shoot first. I’ve been talking to Eddie (defenceman Alex Edler) a lot and learning from him.”
“It’s taxing at times (playing in front of the net),”he added.“It’s a little different playing the point. At the same time I can use my shot more.”
Notes: The Canadiens will be without the services of David Desharnais who left Wednesday’s game with a lower-body injury and is listed day-to-day. His spot on the top line will be taken by Tomas Plekanec and the team has called up Louis Leblanc from Hamilton of the American Hockey League. . ... Mathieu Darche has missed seven games with and upper-body injury as well. Also, infirmary regulars Andrei Markov (knee), Brian Gionta (upper-body), and Travis Moen (upper-body) will also be absent the lineup. ... Vancouver is still without the services of defenceman Keith Ballard, out with a concussion since Feb. 8. Andrew Ebbett broke his collar bone Jan. 7, and though he has resumed skating he is not ready to return to the lineup.