There's something special about Montreal

CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 9:43 AM ET

You could read Michael Cammalleri's lips.

"Wow."

The roars at the Bell Centre were deafening, the cheers and the hats raining down after the Montreal Canadiens forward had scored his third goal of the night against the Boston Bruins.

It was the night of the Canadiens’ centennial celebration and the emotions of the sellout crowd had already been primed by the sight of two dozen former Habs greats skating out of history and onto the ice as part of the pre-game festivities.

As the ceremony concluded, the Canadiens legends assembled in a long row at centre ice and this year’s edition of the Habs lined up behind them. The symbolism was not lost on many looking on: the recent editions of Canadiens teams take a back seat to the teams that created the glory recognized that night.

It was clear to anybody watching just how big has become the size of the disconnect between those great teams and players and the largely-pedestrian Canadiens teams that have taken the ice since they last won the Stanley Cup in 1993.

Those teams have ranged from the horrible (1998-2001, out of the playoffs) to the somewhat interesting (the playoff team of 2008) to the outright disappointing (last year’s team in the midst of the centennial hyperbole).

The other night the fans wanted a current player in which to invest their emotions and Cammalleri was at the right place at the right time, his three goals triggering a memorable roar. The in-house camera caught him on the bench, mouthing the word, "wow."

He pumped his fist to the crowd.

"People throw out the word religion when they talk about hockey in Montreal. It matters so much," said Cammalleri, a native of Richmond Hill, Ont., who, until signing with the Habs, had played all of his hockey in Western time zones with Los Angeles and Calgary. "It’s a pretty cool experience."

Cammalleri, 27, signed a free-agent deal with the Canadiens July 1 (a five-year, $30-million contract) bucking the trend of most free agents in their prime. Many are skittish about coming to Montreal, given the pressure and Quebec taxes, which are both high.

But Cammalleri said he was pushing his agent to explore the possibility.

"You want to have one chance in your career to play in a place so special. If you ever wanted to get fully engaged, this is the place to do it," he said.

He’s embraced the opportunity. On the night of the centennial celebration, Cammalleri sought out the room where the Habs’ legends were getting dressed.

"As I was going around the room, I felt like a kid in a candy shop," said Cammalleri.

"He’s a hockey nut," said Canadiens assistant coach Perry Pearn. "He’s thinking the game all the time, asking ‘Why does this work, why doesn’t this work?’ It rubs off on his teammates. I think he’s fairly demanding from that standpoint.

"He’s adapted well to Montreal and the environment. He thrives on it."

Cammalleri has been one of the best free-agent signings of the off-season. He has become the Canadiens’ offensive catalyst along with centre Tomas Plekanec. Cammalleri has five goals in his last three games heading into Thursday night’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins and has brought his season’s total to 17, the sixth-highest total in the league going into Wednesday night’s play.

In the absence of go-to defenceman Andrei Markov (out since the first game of the season with a lacerated tendon) and forward Brian Gionta (who will miss his 13th game Thursday night with a broken foot), Cammalleri’s scoring has been the biggest reason the Canadiens find themselves in a playoff spot after 31 games.

"When the guys look at the conference standings every morning, they look for that line under the eighth spot," said Cammalleri. "We’ve got a lot of climbing to go, but we’ll do anything to get there."

Cammalleri’s done his bit so far.


Videos

Photos