Rookie Palushaj earns spot on top line for Canadiens pre-season opener

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MONTREAL - Aaron Palushaj will skate on a marquee line in his first exhibition game with the Montreal Canadiens and coach Jacques Martin says he earned that honour.

The right winger picked up last March in the trade that sent Matt D'Agostini to the St. Louis Blues will skate with 2009-10 team scoring leader Tomas Plekanec and sniper Mike Cammalleri when the Canadiens open their pre-season schedule hosting the Boston Bruins on Wednesday night.

It will be the first of five games in six nights for the Canadiens, who play five of their seven pre-season contests at home.

''I'm excited for the game for sure,'' said Palushaj, a 21-year-old from Northville, Mich., who has been scoring goals regularly in intra-squad games at camp. ''To be honest it makes it a lot easier (playing with) two unbelievable players.

''You just keep it simple and play hard.''

Palushaj was playing for the Blues' farm club in Peoria, Ill., when he was traded. He moved to Montreal's top affiliate in Hamilton, joining the Bulldogs in time for a strong regular-season finish and a run to the AHL final.

''When I got the evaluation from Hamilton last year, the coaches felt he was our best player in the playoffs,'' said Martin. ''This is a first opportunity for me to see him play.

''He's helps our depth. He has good speed and offensive skill and it will be good to see him in the next week or two.''

Without naming his lineup, Martin hinted strongly that it will be a first pre-season game for the Canadiens 2009 top picks (centre Louis Leblanc) and 2010 (defenceman Jared Tinordi).

Veteran Jeff Halpern, signed as a free agent this month, is likely to centre a line with Maxim Lapierre and Tom Pyatt. Ben Maxwell should play between Travis Moen and Benoit Pouliot.

Leblanc is likely to skate with big Ian Schultz and either Andrew Conboy or Gabriel Dumont.

Carey Price and Curtis Sanford will each play half the game in goal.

Veterans like Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez as well as young defenceman P.K. Subban are expected to see their first pre-season action Friday against Ottawa.

After acquiring Palushaj, the Canadiens got two more prospects in Schultz and Lars Eller from the Blues in an off-season trade for goaltender Jaroslav Halak. All three have made their mark at camp.

The six-foot-two Schultz, a 20-year-old from the Calgary Hitmen of the Western Hockey League, has scored goals and thrown some big hits, while 21-year-old Eller has impressed with his speed and play-making skills.

Eller has been skating on a line with Gionta and Gomez and is expected to make the team—having been given the dressing room stall between Gionta and Cammalleri for camp.

''Right when the trade happened he gave me a call and said 'Hey I'm following you,' '' Palushakj said of Eller, his teammate in Peoria for most of last season. ''That was pretty weird, but we're both happy to be here.

''Eller's a good player. He's fast, he's pretty smart and shots the puck well.''

Palushaj played two pre-season games for the Blues last season and skated on ''a pretty good line, but no Cammalleri-Plekanec.''

He's already had a good chat with Cammalleri. Both attended the University of Michigan under coach Red Berenson before turning pro, as did another Canadiens prospect, winger Max Pacioretty.

''He's a Michigan guy so there's an automatic bond,'' Cammalleri said with a smile. ''It's unsaid—all you have to do is look at each other and 1,000 words are exchanged.

''I was impressed with him. He has a strong skillset—fast, quick strides, good shot, works hard. And he said all the right things to Tomas and me. He seems to have the right attitude.''

Cammalleri recalled the nervousness he felt when he made his NHL debut with the Los Angeles Kings in 2002 on a line with Adam Deadmarsh and Zigmund Palffy.

''I remember that feeling,'' he said. ''It was the fastest hockey I'd ever been part of.

''I really enjoyed it. You get really excited and it usually brings out the best in you so I'm sure the young guys will feel that way.''

In the final moments of the team's two-hour skate, a power outage caused the lights to dim and then go out, leaving players to do drills in semi-darkness at their suburb training centre.

A Cammalleri shot hit defenceman Josh Gorges in the groin area, but no serious damage was done.

''I had the puck and I thought I'll just snap one through and probably the goalie won't see it and it'll go in,'' a grinning Cammalleri said. ''So I snapped it, it hit Gorges' stick and hit him right in the groin and he went down and out.

''So that was a good little series of events with the lights off.''

Cammalleri had another laugh when he mused that in near-darkness ''that's how some guys must feel every night—I'm not going to say any names.''

Expected defence pairings for the opener should include Gorges with Hal Gill and Tinordi with Jaroslav Spacek.



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