by Rick Stephens,

(Photo by Rick Stephens / All Habs)

Brossard, QC. — The hockey season is still almost three weeks away — today was just the first scrimmage on the first day of training camp. Insignificant, right? Not a chance — this is Montreal where everything hockey gets amplified many times over.

Lines for arena seating began forming around 9 a.m. for the inter-squad game that began at 11:00 a.m. Fans were buzzing about Markov’s set-back, the return of Gorges and Pacioretty, the rookies, the addition of Eric Cole, and a pudgy Russian defenseman. Strangely there was a palpable tension in the air.

64 players attending camp have been split into three squads (you can find the rosters here.)

Today’s scrimmage pitted Tomas Plekanec’s Team A (wearing white) against Brian Gionta’s Team B (in red.) Team C ran through drills on their own on the secondary sheet of ice. The game was split into two 30-minute periods — although the clock was kept running during stoppages of play.

It was quickly evident that the players were as excited to be back in action as the fans were thrilled to see them. This would not be a polite, timid run-through. After the game, head coach Jacques Martin said that he has not witnessed a more intense scrimmage in the three years that he has been in Montreal.

“In the past three years here, I’ve never seen a scrimmage with as much contact and robustness.” — Jacques Martin.

The first period featured a quick pace and numerous scoring chances but starters Carey Price for the White squad and Peter Budaj for the Reds shut-out the shooters. Jarred Tinordi delivered a few solid hits particularly on Aaron Palushaj. Eric Cole made his presence known first running over Josh Gorges and then sending Andrew Conboy awkwardly into the boards.

Seeing the recently-recovered Gorges and Max Pacioretty was nerve-racking for the fans, but each emerged none the worse for wear. Scoring was more frequent in the second period with Robin Gusse taking over for Price and Robert Mayer getting his chance in place of Budaj.

Dany Masse for the White squad and Ben Winnett for Team Red traded goals to open the scoring. It wouldn’t take too long for Winnett to get his second goal. A good save by Gusse later in the period would prevent Winnett from notching the hat-trick.

A perfect pass by Philip Desimone allowed Ian Schultz to briefly look like a sniper — the rugged Hamilton winger put it top-corner past Gusse giving Team Red a 3-1 lead.

Tomas Plekanec had a half dozen scoring chances in the game including a 2-on-0 break with Cole — Robert Mayer held his ground. Then it was Gusse’s turn to shine as he stopped a penalty-shot by Philippe Lefebvre. Team White staged a comeback scoring twice in the last four minutes on goals by Alexander Avtsin and Mike Cammalleri (with 57.9 seconds left.)

The contest was settled in a shootout with Cammalleri scoring the game-winner. The comeback was complete with Team White taking a 4-3 victory. Fans at the Bell Sports Complex left satisfied with an exciting game and most of their questions answered.

  • Gorges and Pacioretty were able to return to action although both flew under the radar most of the game, and Pacioretty seemed to be fighting for air at times.
  • Cole confirmed that he will bring a physical dimension to the top line.
  • Young guns Winnett, Avtsin, Tinordi, Desimone and Archambault all played very well.
(Photo by Rick Stephens / All Habs)

Let’s flashback to Friday when the players were completing their physicals and fitness testing. A photo was circulated that seemed to paint Alexei Yemelin in the worst possible light. It was taken from a particularly unflattering angle which fuelled some nasty comments about the newly-arrived Russian defenseman.

The phrase “love handles” seemed to make its way into many reports with the usual suspects questioning Lemelin’s fitness, conditioning, work habits and commitment to the Canadiens and his teammates. The comments came from the same circles who believe that Avtsin doesn’t have the talent to make the NHL and who are doing their best to ride Andrei Kostitsyn out of town on a rail.

You see the common thread?

It’s not clear whether the cutting and unfair criticism filtered back to Yemelin, but it was evident that he wanted to send a message at his first opportunity. Yemelin was quick, mobile and hit everything that moved. Not the Max Lapierre type of rattle-the-boards checks but solid hits that punish and stop players in their tracks.

“I needed to show myself, that’s what I tried to do.” — Alexei Yemelin (via a translator)

Yemelin rocked Palushaj on several occasions, and delivered two bone-shaking hits to tough guy Schultz. After a hip check to Pacioretty, Max had a few unfriendly words for Yemelin who just patted his new teammate on the shoulder as if to say, “You’ll be alright.” Yemelin even delivered a crushing hit to Brian Gionta — there are no letters on practise jerseys.

On only one occasion did Yemelin put himself out of position looking for the check. Yannick Weber covered up — the two worked well together as a defensive pairing and could be a preview of a duo that could start the season.

“It was a really good performance by Yemelin, he brings an important physical game. He also knows how to get around the rink which could give us a great dimension to our defense squad.” — Jacques Martin

Coach Martin also mentioned that adjustments will be necessary to Yemelin’s game. The most obvious is the transition to a smaller ice surface but the coach may have also been referring to Yemelin’s extraordinarily long shifts. While bringing down his shift length may be desirable, Yemelin’s endurance was just one part of his game that flew in the face of those who criticized his conditioning.

Yemelin’s grade will not be decided on one scrimmage nor a single game. But this day, he was the best player on the ice, and that should please the Canadiens coaching staff, and give a great deal of confidence to anxious Habs fans. Any questions about Yemelin were answered with an exclamation point.

Notes from Camp

Scott Gomez suffered a leg injury in the morning skate and was not able to participate in the scrimmage.

Brendon Nash was added to the injury list with a lower body ailment.

Louis Leblanc, Olivier Fortier and Lars Eller were wearing no-contact jerseys and will not be available to scrimmage.


  1. Cammalleri’s clutch even in a scrimmage game ;)

    I don’t care how “pudgy” Yemelin is. He can play. If he was a top defenceman on the big-ice KHL, this small surface is probably funny for him. Wish those circles would leave our Russians alone. Especially those poopooing Avtsin, who’s a baby compared to most players on the ice. Dude has incredible skill. I think sometimes people forget the ages of these kids…

    • I agree 100% Number31! Yemelin is good defenseman and leaking the silly photo was just an attempt to direct criticism at him. As far as those who are trashing Avtsin (FG has been leading the bandwagon) they are rapidly losing credibility. Avstin is exceptionally talented and simply needs the proper supports on and off the ice.

  2. Good write up Rick.
    I figured Yemelin would not be up to NHL speed till late fall and would have little impact till then, hopefully i have underestimated his play and readiness; Weber and he as a pair sounds good, love the youth.
    Nice to hear Tinordi and Ellis are also looking fine so far.

    Curious how Diaz and Dietz will stack up?

    • Thanks for the compliment Don. All indications are that Yemelin is an NHL-ready defenseman already. He skates very well and has exceptional mobility. He makes a good lead pass and can shoot the puck. Granted there will be an adjustment period but my hope is that he will be allowed to play through the mistakes.

      Weber has been paired with both Yemelin and Tinordi — looked good in each duo.

      I was very impressed with Darren Dietz during the rookie camp. You can read my thoughts here:

      Jury is still out on Raphael Diaz. I haven’t seen anything yet that separates him from the pack.

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