Finding the sweet spot
BROSSARD – With a few days to go before the first game of the regular season, the Habs took to the ice on Saturday morning at the Bell Sports Complex for a practice session focused on fostering intensity and building team chemistry.
Members of the coaching staff emphasized two-versus-two “battle drills” in front of the net, where defensemen were free to use any methods, legal or otherwise, to move forwards attempting to tip the puck past a screened goaltender. The physicality involved led to a few tumbles, but one of the team’s hard-nosed forwards appreciated what the exercise tried to accomplish.
“Battle drills in front of the net are something we do all year, and it helped us last season,” explained Brandon Prust. “It helps you come together as a team. You have fun, but you’re serious at the same time, fighting hard with each other.”
The Habs’ confidence in front of the opposing team's net likely contributed to the team’s second-ranked offense (149 goals in 48 games, behind only Pittsburgh) in the Eastern Conference during the 2012-13 campaign.
Prust, who sat out Thursday’s final preseason match against Ottawa to rest, is feeling refreshed and ready to play his usual brand of physical hockey come October 1st against the Maple Leafs.
Lining up next to Prust on opening night could very well be tough guy George Parros, who was given the green light from the team's medical staff to return to action. The same goes for Douglas Murray, who once against participated in full-contact drills during practice. The only absentees were Alexei Emelin, who skated after practice, and Davis Drewoske, who is still out with an upper-body injury.
While Michel Therrien’s squad would normally head off for a retreat at this time of year, a rather tight schedule didn't allow for it. Instead, the coaching staff brought some outside specialists on board and planned out a set of activities to be conducted at the Bell Sports Complex.
One of the more memorable team bonding moments came late in Saturday morning's practice, when the players and coaches all lined up at one end of the rink.
“It’s a game we play often. If a player misses the opposing net with his shot, he’ll have to skate five laps," explained Therrien. “If he hits the crossbar, though, the coaches have to skate.”
To the delight of his teammates, Andre Markov managed to slap the puck 180 feet down the ice and hit the crossbar. The crisp ping of rubber meeting iron sent the Habs into a frenzy, and the Russian defenseman was mobbed by 24 overjoyed teammates.
“It was the first time in twelve years [that someone managed to hit the crossbar],” confessed Therrien, who looked visibly tired after having to skate end-to-end alongside assistants Gerard Gallant, J.J. Daignault and Clement Jodoin. “I think the players were a bit too happy to see us bag skate."
In the dressing room, Lars Eller was surprised by the rare display of exuberance from Markov.
“The odds [of winning the game] were against us, but it was bound to happen at some point. Today, Markov hit it right in the sweet spot. I’ve never seen him celebrate like this, not even after scoring an overtime goal,” acknowledged Eller.
Given that the Dane was one of the first players to throw himself into the dog pile, he too must have been enjoying the moment.