Laraque returns with no Carbo promises

Canadiens fourth-line winger Georges Laraque has a good time during Thursday practice.
Dave Sidaway, Gazette

The Gazette

Georges Laraque  plays his 18th game for the Canadiens on Friday night. And it seems entirely up to him whether he’s on the ice for five minutes or 10, whether he suits up for each of the club’s remaining 31 games or just a handful of them.

Montreal’s popular heavyweight free-agent signing of last July finally is in fighting form, so to speak, ready and eager to face the Buffalo Sabres.

It will be the first of the Canadiens’ back-to-back games, the Toronto Maple Leafs providing Bell Centre opposition Saturday, before the team sets out on a huge six-game road trip.

Laraque has missed the past 18 games with a back injury. He’s been sidelined for a total of 34 this season – 27 with groin and back problems and listed, perhaps generously, as a healthy scratch for seven more. On Thursday, Canadiens head coach Guy Carbonneau welcomed Laraque back to his lineup – without a single promise.

“I can guarantee him nothing,” Carbonneau said. “What he shows on the ice will determine his ice time.

“Georges’s game is in his hands. When he signed here, he was excited and wanted to be a big part of this club. Unfortunately, with the injury, he wasn’t able to do that. But this is crunch time until the end of the season, and I think he’s ready to go.”

In the Sabres (27-20-5), the Canadiens will face a squad that’s fighting for a playoff berth and is 6-4 in its last 10 games, a record exactly the opposite of Montreal (29-16-6).

The Canadiens are coming off a 4-2 home-ice win over Pittsburgh on Tuesday. The Sabres were 5-0 winners over Toronto in Buffalo on Wednesday.

“I don’t think it’s about them,” Habs defenceman Mike Komisarek said Thursday of the Sabres, before the team flew to Buffalo following a spirited noon-hour Brossard practice.

“It’s more about continuing what we’re trying to build here, carrying that momentum and continuing to play our game.”

The Canadiens would be well advised to throw a tarp over Sabres sniper Thomas Vanek, whose natural hat trick Wednesday buried the Leafs and gave him 32 goals this season. Nor can Derek Roy, Jason Pominville or Drew Stafford be ignored.

Carbonneau practised a virtually identical lineup to that which beat the Penguins, with one change. Laraque replaced the Hamilton-farmed Alex Henry on the fourth line, skating with Steve Bégin and Tom Kostopoulos.

Tomas Plekanec centres Alex Kovalev and Andrei Kostitsyn; Saku Koivu has Christopher Higgins and Matt D’Agostini as his wingmen; and Maxim Lapierre centres Max Pacioretty and Sergei Kostitsyn.

Carey Price starts in goal, with no decision made on whether he or Jaro Halak face the Leafs Saturday.

Versatile Mathieu Dandenault, cleared to return after having missed 24 games with a broken arm, will be a healthy scratch tonight but back perhaps as early as tomorrow. Defenceman Patrice Brisebois remained in Montreal to deal with a lower-body injury that Carbonneau deems not serious.

The coach wants Laraque to be “a difference-maker,” that is, to play the body and keep Sabres’ heads up.

“I thought (the fourth line) played extremely well against Pittsburgh,” Carbonneau said.

“If they play a style that’s safe in our zone, forecheck well and don’t allow too many scoring chances against us, then I can use them a lot more. That means our first two, three lines are well rested for the big minutes.”

Less will be expected of the hardrock Laraque, who arrived in Montreal viewed as a physical saviour to settle accounts on every shift.

“I don’t think he was doing bad things when he was playing at the start of the year,” Carbonneau said. “I think we reacted as a team the wrong way. We expected him to do everything and take care of everybody.

“That’s not how hockey is. He has to be a good player for us, play the minutes I ask. Now that we know him a little bit and we know what we did wrong when he was in the lineup, maybe we’ll be able to react better.”

Perhaps of greater entertainment this weekend will be Saturday’s resumed feud between Sergei Kostitsyn and former Canadien Mikhail Grabovski, for which Carbonneau will not rein in his fiery Belarusian.

“I think it’s just great,” he said with a grin. “You need emotion to play. For me and (Quebec Nordiques’) Peter Statsny, it wasn’t love.

“I don’t see why I’d talk to (Kostitsyn). Power plays are an important part of the game and I don’t want him to go on the ice and be stupid. But if they have problems, there’s one way to fix it.”

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