Final approach

Tuesday, 08.04.2014 / 1:27 PM Montreal Canadiens

BROSSARD – With a scant three games left in the regular season, Habs players and coaches discussed the balancing act taking place within a playoff-bound team.

With the playoff picture almost completely set, coaching staffs and players across the NHL are being confronted with a tricky dilemma. While franchises destined to miss out on the postseason are giving their young prospects some top-level exposure in the final regular season games of the 2013-14 campaign, teams such as the Canadiens will have to decide whether or not to rest its stars for the start of the playoffs.

“You don’t want to hold back at all. Every time we go out there, we play to win,” asserted Habs captain Brian Gionta, who has averaged over 18 minutes of ice time per game in all situations this season. “You’re not thinking ahead at all, only focusing on the next game. It’s part of being a professional. We want to make sure that we finish the year playing good hockey, being consistent and sticking to our game plan.”

Gionta’s point of view is a valid one, considering that the three remaining games, against the Blackhawks, Islanders and Rangers are far from meaningless. The Canadiens currently hold a slim lead over the Lighting for home-ice advantage in the teams’ first-round series. That’s something worth fighting for, according to another experienced playoff performer.

“Having home-ice advantage in the playoffs would be nice. In case we get to that point, playing a Game 7 at home rather than on the road is a huge asset,” insisted Daniel Briere, who will be playing his first playoff series as a member of the Canadiens after putting up 109 points in 108 playoff games with Phoenix, Buffalo and Philadelphia. “We want to finish the year on the strong note. Two wins in the remaining three games is something we’d be happy with. None of those games will be easy.”

At 35 and 36 years of age respectively, neither Gionta nor Briere are spring chickens. Still, they're having no trouble keeping up with the pace set during the 82-game campaign.

“It’s a fine line to walk between giving players a break and risking the team losing momentum. As players, we would rather be on the ice on a daily basis. It’s what we are used to and something that our bodies are prepared for,” revealed Briere.

Head coach Michel Therrien seems to share the two forwards’ outlooks. He made no changes to his offensive lineup during Tuesday’s practice, but did announce a major shake-up in his defensive duos. Josh Gorges will draw back into the lineup against the Blackhawks for his first game since breaking his hand a month ago. Meanwhile, the pairing of Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin will remain in Montreal in order get some much-needed rest.

“Markov and Emelin are defensemen who play in very difficult situations, against the best offensive players on the other teams. I saw this as a good opportunity to give them a game off so that they could get some treatment and do some off-ice workouts to be 100 percent for the rest of the season,” acknowledged Therrien.

For his part, Gorges, who used the break to work out any nagging injuries of his own, is looking forward to being back for the final stretch of the regular season.

“Nothing compares to game conditioning and being in game shape. That’s why I felt it was so important for me to get back for these final few games before the playoffs started,” offered the assistant captain, who did everything in his power to return to the lineup as soon as possible. “I am the most impatient guy when it comes to stuff like this. Like I said, the physical battle is one thing, but the mental aspect of it, not being able to compete, not being able to help your teammates out and having to sit there and to watch day after day, that eats at you. I’m glad that that’s over and we can move forward. As far as I know, I’ll be ready to go.”

Jack Han is a writer for canadiens.com.

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