Swiss captain Mark Streit a all-purpose instrument for Canadiens

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A defenceman all his career, the captain of the Swiss national team has played on the wings for much of this season. He also kills penalties and plays the point on the second power-play unit. He hasn't been asked to strap on the pads and play goal, but he'd probably do that too, if asked.

"There are different roles on the team and mine is to be part forward, part defenceman," Streit said Wednesday. "I'm ready for whatever they ask me.

" I think it's good. It's a challenge and so far it's a pleasure."

Streit will be on the fourth line on Thursday night when the Canadiens visit the Penguins in Pittsburgh, a team they beat 6-3 in their only previous meeting this season on Dec. 16.

Streit has four goals and 15 assists in 45 games, including the game-winner in a 3-1 win over Ottawa on Monday night, when he and Swiss goaltender David Aebischer were both named stars of the match.

Coach Guy Carbonneau has grown to appreciate Streit, who averages only 13:03 per game in ice time, among the lowest on the team, but plays in some key moments.

With eight defencemen, but an unstable fourth line, Carbonneau moved Streit up to the wing and found he could do the job. Since then, he keeps finding more uses for him.

Carbonneau said that versatility is especially helpful in the post-lockout era, when moving players between the NHL and the minors is not as simple as before.

"Sometimes I move him onto the first two lines if we're up by a goal in the last three or four minutes to help us defensively," said Carbonneau. "He plays the power play, penalty killing, there's a lot of good options for me.

"Especially with the restrictions we have now, to have him on the fourth line really helps."

The Bern native also speaks fluent English and French, as well as his native Swiss German.

And he doesn't cost much. He is earning US$600,000 this season and next. When taxes are considered, that could be a pay cut from what he was making as a star defenceman with HC Zurich in the Swiss league.

"Money, obviously, wasn't the issue to come over here," he said. "I had a very good life in Switzerland, but my dream was the NHL and I didn't care if I made less."

It was a long wait for the 29-year-old, who was a highly respected player in the Swiss league.

He watched every NHL draft starting when he was 18 and didn't hear his name called. The year he finally gave up in 2004, a reporter called to tell him he'd been chosen in the ninth round, 262nd overall, by the Canadiens.

"I was so happy," he said.

He wasn't able to join the NHL club at the time because of the lockout, but was in camp when play resumed in 2005, looking lost and tentative on the smaller NHL ice surface.

He got into 48 games as a rookie last season, but seemed to get better and more confident as the season progressed. He played well enough to be offered a new two-year contract.

Streit was scratched a few times this season as well, but has played the last 26 games.

"The start was more difficult than I thought, but I never gave up," he said. "I knew I had the capability of playing in the league.

"I'm in the right direction, but I'm not there yet. I still have to play well."

He and Aebischer are two-thirds of the Swiss contingent in the NHL. The other is Ottawa goalie Martin Gerber.

It isn't much considering that in recent years, Switzerland usurped Germany as the sport's eighth team, behind the Big Seven of Canada, the U.S., Russia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Finland and Sweden.

Streit and the Swiss reached the quarter-finals at the Olympics last February, when they upset Canada 2-0 in the preliminary round, mostly on an outstanding game from Gerber.

"For the whole country, it was a huge win," he said of the victory. "We needed all the luck in the world, but we played a great game, we had great goaltending.

"I think it put Swiss hockey on the map and people have a little more respect for our program."

Now, Streit would like to see more of his compatriots develop their game by playing with and against the world's best players in the NHL.

"With the national team, we got to a certain stage, top eight, but to go a little further and maybe win a medal at the world championships even once, you have to have your players play international hockey and play in the NHL," he said.

"I hope the young players who are drafted will come over and try to play in the NHL. It's the best league. It's unbelievable to play here and live hockey over here. When I go back, I tell the guys it's really worth it to come here."