MONTREAL — Louis Leblanc and Nathan Beaulieu will get a chance to show their skills when the Canadiens square off against the top team in the Eastern Conference.
The two former first-round draft picks, who were called up from the Hamilton Bulldogs, will be pencilled into the lineup Wednesday for the Canadiens’ final meeting this season with the Pittsburgh Penguins (7 p.m., TSN, RDS, TSN Radio 690).
“It feels good,” Leblanc said after practice Tuesday about being back with the Habs.
“It was a long wait. You never know with the injuries up here and whatnot. But I’m happy to be back and it’s always fun to be in Montreal.”
Leblanc, who was selected 18th overall by the Canadiens in the 2009 NHL draft, played 42 games with the Canadiens during the 2011-12 season, but struggled last season in Hamilton. This season with the Bulldogs, he is tied for the team lead with nine goals and has 11 assists in 36 games.
Leblanc said he feels his season has been going well.
“I’m contributing offensively and also improving my defensive game,” the 22-year-old said. “Getting better on the (penalty kill). Just little details of the game that I never really paid attention to before in my career and it’s for sure helping me out.”
Leblanc has worked with skating coach Pat Kelly and feels that’s the area of his game that has improved the most this season.
Leblanc practised Tuesday on a line centred by Michael Bournival with Travis Moen, while Beaulieu, a left-handed shot, was in a new position for him, on the right side of a defensive pairing with Josh Gorges.
The Canadiens have to deal with the players they have, coach Michel Therrien said, noting they have to put left-handed defencemen on the right side. If they put them all on the left, they’ll have a gaping hole on the right, he joked.
Beaulieu skates well, has good mobility and good vision, the coach added, calling it an experiment they want to try.
Therrien rejigged the Habs’ defensive pairings in the wake of the team’s 5-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday, reuniting P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov. Alexei Emelin, who is a left-handed shot, is back on the left side, paired with Raphael Diaz. Douglas Murray was paired with Francis Bouillon at practice.
“You look at the past month or so and it’s been kind of one good game, one tough game. So we’ve got to find some consistency in our game here as a team,” Subban said.
“It doesn’t matter who I’m paired with. We have a job to do and it’s our responsibility as a defence corps to make sure that we’re playing solid for our goaltender. And I think over the past couple of games we haven’t done a good enough job of limiting scoring chances and clearing out the rebounds in front of the net. We need to be more consistent in that.”
The Canadiens haven’t won back-to-back games since Dec. 21 and 28 and it shows in the Eastern Conference standings. Heading into Tuesday night’s NHL action, the gap between the Habs in fourth place with 59 points and the seventh-place Philadelphia Flyers was just three points.
The Canadiens beat the Penguins 3-2 at the Bell Centre on Nov. 23 in their first battle this season.
“We’re all aware of the challenge that awaits us (in Pittsburgh),” said Therrien, adding the Canadiens will have to play a tight game.
“We’ll have to follow the game plan to the letter.”
Notes: Carey Price will start in net for the Canadiens. Alex Galchenyuk, who still has a cast on his fractured hand, skated on his own for the second day Tuesday. Ryan White also skated on his own and his return isn’t imminent. White’s upper-body injury has been slow to heal, Therrien said. “We’re still talking about weeks,” the coach said.
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