MONTREAL — Enter Ben Chiarot.
The six-foot-three, 225-pound defenceman, who broke his hand on March 10 and had it surgically repaired five days later, is returning to the Montreal Canadiens lineup ahead of what he feels is the biggest game of the season.
There’s no debating the relevance of this matchup with the Calgary Flames, who came to the Bell Centre Wednesday and ran the Canadiens over in a 4-1 win that brought them to within four points in the standings.
Even if the Flames have played three more games than the Canadiens, who are sitting in the fourth and final playoff spot in the North Division, they have an opportunity to leave Montreal having created some real hope for themselves.
And with three games remaining between both teams after Friday’s 6 p.m. ET bout, the Canadiens don’t want to be left doubting themselves.
“It’s as big a game as there’s been this year,” said Chiarot on Friday morning. “It’s a team that’s hungry and chasing us in the standings. Obviously, we saw that last game — maybe them coming out with the little more jump and a little bit more jam than us — so we’ll be looking for a big response from our team today.”
It’ll have to be one for Jake Allen, who gets his sixth consecutive start for the Canadiens in Carey Price’s absence.
The Montreal starter is, however, nearing a return. Price could be back against the Ottawa Senators on Saturday, according to Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme.
Before we get there, the Canadiens are looking to get back to playing their game, which is something Chiarot can help them do.
“We either look very together and organized and working together or we’re kind of spread out and not really helping each other out,” said Chiarot. “So, if I can just be another voice in the room or be doing my part on the ice to be supporting the play and kind of leading by example, that’s what I’ll do. I think that’s going to be the most important thing here in our push to get into the playoffs is playing together consistently.”
It’s expected he’ll partner with Shea Weber, moving Brett Kulak to the left side of Alexander Romanov on the third defence pairing.
Capped out for Caufield
While Cole Caufield was recalled from the Laval Rocket and placed on the Canadiens’ taxi squad before practising with the group Friday, Ducharme explained the salary cap doesn’t permit him to insert the 20-year-old — or any other Montreal player on the outside looking in — into the lineup right now.
Even with Brendan Gallagher on long-term injury reserve with a broken right thumb, the Canadiens have dipped into their ability to exceed the cap in adding Jon Merrill and Erik Gustafsson —defencemen who came in before the NHL trade deadline and are serving the final days of their quarantine in Edmonton, where the team will begin a five-game road-trip on Monday.
“The only way (Caufield or others) come in is with an injury,” said Ducharme.
However, with it being revealed shortly after Ducharme spoke that Xavier Ouellet was sent to the taxi squad, the coach does have a bit more flexibility than he might have been aware of.
Ducharme will have even more if Price does return for Saturday’s game against the Senators.
Meanwhile, Caufield, who scored 30 goals and 52 points in 31 games with the Wisconsin Badgers before signing his entry-level contract with the Canadiens, was excited to get one step closer to his dream of playing in the NHL.
“Just an exciting experience for me just to be up here right now,” the 15th-overall pick in the 2019 Draft said. “It’s great to be on the ice with those guys and just be in the meetings and learn as much as I can. The coaching staff has been great, too, and I’m just trying to work hard and do as much as I can to get that chance. Right now I’m just focused on day-to-day learning and doing as best as I can.”
As for his expectations of what he might be able to do in the world’s best hockey league, Caufield isn’t tempering them.
“I think no matter where I’m playing, I expect the most out of myself,” he said. “I know that internally I have my goals and stuff like that. But as long as the team’s winning and I’m getting chances, that’s the best way to put it. Personally, I hold myself to a high standard. But the wins are the most important of things, and if I can contribute to that in any way, that’s my main goal.”
Chiarot didn’t get a good look at his new teammate on the ice, but he’s aware of what Caufield should be able to contribute down the line.
“From everything I hear, he can put the puck in the net. That’s important for our team, especially right now. And if he can do that to help us, that’s perfect.”