Canadiens hit by flu bug just as return to full health on horizon


Montreal Canadiens' Artturi Lehkonen (62) celebrates with teammates Max Domi (13) and Marco Scandella after scoring during first period NHL hockey action against the Pittsburgh Penguins, in Montreal, Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020. (Graham Hughes / CP)

BROSSARD, Que. — Dale Weise stood at his dressing room stall with a look of disbelief on his face.

“It’s crazy,” he said.

Weise was referring to how close the Montreal Canadiens are to getting Brendan Gallagher back from a concussion for just his second game since December ended, how close they are to having Jonathan Drouin back from a wrist surgery that’s sidelined him since Nov. 16, how Paul Byron isn’t far behind in his rehab from a knee surgery that’s kept him out for the same period and how the flu bug is now working its way through the rest of the roster.

Phillip Danault said Tuesday that he might be coming down with it, but he still skated over the last two days. Max Domi and Artturi Lehkonen started feeling the effects of it during Monday’s 4-2 loss to the Washington Capitals and missed practice Tuesday and Wednesday.

All three players will travel with the Canadiens to Buffalo for Thursday’s game against the Sabres, but neither Domi nor Lehkonen is guaranteed to dress.

Nate Thompson and Shea Weber missed Wednesday’s practice and opted for treatments instead, just like Marco Scandella did on Tuesday — in an attempt to give a nagging lower-body injury some rest.

They’re all expected to play the Sabres, as is Gallagher — provided he doesn’t feel any differently Thursday than he does Wednesday.

But Drouin has been ruled out, with Canadiens coach Claude Julien saying when he returns is essentially up to him now.

“I don’t know where he is right now (in his rehab),” Julien said of Drouin, who was a full participant in practice Wednesday for just the second time since suffering his injury.

“Again, he’s healed but now it’s about how comfortable is he and whether he can tolerate the pain and where he’s restricted and all that stuff. A lot of it now is in his court, because the injury has healed. But there’s some stiffness, there’s a lot of different things. So that’s where we’re at with him, so I can’t give you a time for him to come back. I think a lot of it will depend on him.”

Meanwhile, Drouin’s teammates, much like fans of the Canadiens, are anxious to see him back in uniform.

With Ilya Kovalchuk in the fold and rookie Nick Suzuki emerging as a budding talent in the absence of several key players, the Canadiens have been contemplating what their team will look like with everyone healthy.

Goaltender Carey Price has been building out potential line combinations as much as anyone in Montreal.

“I think we have those three players (Gallagher, Drouin and Byron) back, we’re looking pretty sharp,” he said before cautioning, “It’s going to take time to get everybody’s mojo back. It’s not instantaneous that you’re going to be awesome, but it’s definitely going to be a big boost for our squad.”

At this stage, the Canadiens need more than a boost.

They’re 10 points out of a playoff spot and running out of road to narrow the gap in the race with 31 games remaining on their season.

They were hoping for good news to not be accompanied by bad news, but this is the hand they’ve been dealt.

“It’s unfortunate in the situation that we’re in,” said Julien when he was asked about key players being so close to playing while others suddenly being questionable with the flu.

“You wish everybody was healthy, but this time a year, year after year, you’re dealing with those flu bugs. You’re dealing with little injuries and nagging injuries, and for some guys it’s getting a day off and then being fresh the next day because that day off helps whatever the nagging injury is, it helps them heal a little bit. We’re just trying to get through these situations that every team goes through, so that’s where we’re at. And unfortunately, we’re in a desperate situation where you cross your fingers that everybody’s going to be ready to go.”

Gallagher said Tuesday that he can’t wait to see what the Canadiens look like at full health.

“It’s been a while since we’ve really been healthy all together,” he said.

“It’s a hard situation here. We need all the bodies we can get. So hopefully Jo’s getting closer and closer, the sick guys get healthy and then we can see what we’re capable of. Obviously, on paper, it looks like you could be a special group, but it’s just on paper. I think you got to see results. For us, I think you put that pressure on ourselves to go out there and get the job done and prove everyone right who’s saying that.”

It’s something the 24-year-old Drouin said he’s hoping to do in short order, but the swelling around his injury was plain to see Tuesday, and he said there’s still plenty of stiffness and soreness he’s trying to get over in order to be game-ready.

For now, Drouin can only continue to watch. It’s a helpless position to be in, one that he hasn’t been particularly comfortable with as the Canadiens have spiralled down the standings without him.

“It’s easy to watch the hockey on TV and say you could make that play there,” Drouin said. “But as long as you’re not on the ice and you’re not feeling what the game is like, it’s hard to really comment and say we lost this game because of this or that. It’s really hard when you’re sitting out and you’re not on the ice, you don’t really contribute to anything. You don’t have a say or an action you could do to make a difference.

“We had some streaks where we lost a lot of games and it’s hard to sit there and watch and not be able to do anything. But we got to come back to just the way we were playing. Skating and playing well and not sitting back.”

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