Canadiens counting on Eric Staal's experience in push to playoffs

Montreal Canadiens forward Eric Staal discusses how he filled his time during his 7-day quarantine in Montreal, had a nice little routine going, but is happy to be here now with the group.

BROSSARD, Que. -- It’ll be Game 1,273 for Eric Staal but his first as a Montreal Canadien when the Edmonton Oilers visit the Bell Centre Monday.

That’s a lot of experience. It’s why Staal was brought to Montreal, with the Canadiens in possession of a centre line that’s relied heavily on 20-year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi and 21-year-old Nick Suzuki.

The 36-year-old emerged from his seven-day quarantine and skated for the first time at the Canadiens’ south shore practice facility on Sunday, and at Monday’s morning skate he found himself centring Jonathan Drouin and Tyler Toffoli.

Staal had three goals and 10 points in 32 games with the Buffalo Sabres before he was traded to Montreal for third- and fifth-round picks in the 2021 draft. He was in a rather negative environment there, with the team having not won a game in 17 consecutive tries.

But now Staal has a new lease on this season.

“Excitement is at the top,” the Thunder Bay, Ont., native said. “Obviously just being here in this hockey city is going to excite and give you that good nervous energy. It felt really good to be on the ice with these guys. Obviously, the first thing that jumped out is the talent level and the skill level. I think it’s hard to gauge a lot else in a morning skate, but watching the guys for a few games it was real competitive, quick and aggressive and I think all things you like to see from a good hockey team. So, I’m excited to get involved tonight and hopefully play a good game and be another part to the group that’s already here.”

Staal’s inclusion in the lineup bumped Jake Evans to the sidelines. In Evans’s place next to Artturi Lehkonen and Paul Byron is Kotkaniemi, while Suzuki will centre Corey Perry and Josh Anderson for a second consecutive game.

Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme said he intends to balance out the minutes more than usual, with Monday’s game being the first of 22 the team will play in 37 days before the regular season wraps.

“The first thing is with the depth we have, I really feel that we have four really good lines,” said Ducharme.

He also explained that Kotkaniemi, Byron and Lehkonen showed good chemistry together in the two games prior to being pulled apart for Saturday’s 6-3 loss to the Ottawa Senators -- including last Tuesday’s 4-0 win over the Oilers in which the three combined for five points and played a significant role in keeping superstars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl off the board.

“You see how things go as the game moves along,” said Ducharme, “but I have no problem having KK on the ice with Lehkonen and Byron against McDavid and Draisaitl tonight.”

The coach will also start Carey Price after Price allowed five goals on 31 shots he faced from the Senators Saturday.

The 33-year-old goaltender wasn’t his best, the Canadiens were arguably at their worst, and Monday's game presents an opportunity for everyone to get back on track immediately.

“Carey’s back in net,” said Ducharme. “The thinking is Carey will be like the team -- we’re going to bounce back and have a strong game.”

It’ll be Staal’s first one since March 25. And in addition to lining up with Toffoli and Drouin at 5-on-5, he’ll take Anderson’s spot on a power play unit that includes both players, Suzuki and Shea Weber.

It’s an excellent opportunity for Staal to get off on the right foot in Montreal.

“We want every player to have success,” said Ducharme. “You get Eric Staal, who has over 400 goals in the NHL, I think you’re going to put him on the power play. There’s a spot for him somewhere.

“For linemates, we have good players up and down the lineup, with different qualities, so it’s about chemistry. It’s about what one guy brings to the other. But having a positive start and a good start for a player coming in is always something you look for as a player and as a team when you welcome a new guy like that.”

Staal, who has 439 goals and 1,031 points, feels prepared. He had a number of Zoom video sessions with the coaching staff and watched all three games the Canadiens played while he was in quarantine.

What’s the key to him integrating well immediately?

“I think keep it simple is obviously the first thing that you need to try to accomplish,” Staal said. “Being with Tof and Drou, it’s about hopefully developing some good feelings. For me, I’m going to try to keep it pretty simple here early and do what I can to open up ice for their skill level to come through. Obviously great players, and I’ll be around that net and hopefully create some looks and help contribute.”

Staal knows he won’t be burning up the ice like he did in establishing himself as a perennial all-star, Stanley Cup champion and a gold medalist with Team Canada.

But he’s confident he can bring what the Canadiens are asking of him.

“I’m definitely not the same player I was at 23 years old, but I think with the experience I’ve gained with these years playing in the league, I think a lot of what I can bring is with my brain and where I put myself on the ice,” Staal said. “I can get around well enough to find success and make plays. There’s a lot of quick players, a lot of guys that have a ton of speed, so for me to jump in with that will only help.

“I’m not the same age I was when I was 20, but I think I have plenty left to be able to be a contributor.”

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