BROSSARD – Just over 48 hours shy of the start of the 2013-14 campaign, the Canadiens’ penultimate preseason workout was as much about fine-tuning as it was about keeping things light.
Spending the early part of a 90-minute practice session on Sunday morning at the Bell Sports Complex focusing primarily on special teams play, the Habs are doing their utmost to ensure that both the power play and penalty kill are firing on all cylinders come Tuesday night’s season-opener against the Maple Leafs.
For Daniel Briere, who will make his regular season debut for the bleu-blanc-rouge in a matter of days, the importance of perfecting a team’s play when up or down a man cannot be underestimated.
“There’s no doubt about how vital special teams are. The last few years, I’d say they’re becoming increasingly important. It’ll be the same thing this year. We know that we’re in a tight division, and it’s important to be ready and to get off to a good start,” confirmed Briere, who showed flashes of brilliance on the power play alongside linemates David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty throughout the preseason. “You never know how it’s going to go, but at least we’re spending a lot of time on it in practice and we’re looking to get off to a good start in that regard.”
Like Briere, veteran rearguard Francis Bouillon insists that special teams can often be the difference between victory and defeat in any given tilt in today’s NHL. The 37-year-old saw first-hand how the Canadiens excelled with the man advantage in 2012-13, but struggled to deny the opposition when faced with short-handed situations. With that in mind, the New York, NY native believes that the Habs’ ability to click in those particular areas will go a long way toward determining their fate as the season rolls on.
“We know that a lot of games play out based on those elements. We see that the play is often so tight 5-on-5, and it’s so hard to score goals. It will be important for our team to excel when we have the power play and when we're killing penalties,” explained Bouillon, noting that the Canadiens will be employing similar special teams tactics to last season. “We want to play a closed game, and give our opposition the least amount of chances possible.”
While the Habs might want their special teams units to be efficient early, head coach Michel Therrien’s troops understand that practice – and a few games under their belt – will ultimately make perfect.
“The more you do, the better you feel, as much for me as for the rest of the guys,” mentioned Briere, who played on a Flyers squad that boasted the third-ranked power play and fifth-ranked penalty kill in the league in 2012-13. “There are a lot of new guys that came in this year [in Montreal], especially when it comes to special teams. We’re getting to know where everyone is going to position themselves. The more time we spend working on them, the better prepared we’ll be.”
Key in that preparation will be the players’ ability to get to know one another both on and off the ice, a process that is already well underway with a new season on the horizon.
“It’s always an important element,” cited Briere. “One of the things that impressed me the most is the level of team spirit that already exists inside this locker room. Not only do we have good hockey players, but we’ve got good people, too. When we did the team-building exercises [on Saturday], everyone was on board, and I was happy to see that. I was really impressed to see everyone get involved in the games. We had a great time doing it.”
That sense of togetherness was on display during the latter stages of Sunday morning’s practice, as the Habs wrapped up the skate with a playful shootout and a light stretch.
“It’s good. There are times to be serious, and there are times when you can have a good laugh and have a little bit of fun together and still have some competition,” offered Lars Eller, who racked up a career-high 30 points last season. “That’s just a good sign. It’s good that everyone in the group can have a laugh together. It’s good for the team as a whole. These things will make us grow together. Everyone is excited to get going.”
Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.
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