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DAVE STUBBS, The Gazette
Published: Monday, December 18, 2006

It was nearly an hour after the Canadiens had defeated Sidney Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins 6-3 Saturday night, and the man in the stylish dark suit was mingling with fawning fans deep in the Bell Centre, wearing the coolest accessory taped to his left ankle, beneath his pant leg.

A bag of ice.

"Twenty minutes, and then it's on eBay," said the Canadiens' Chris Higgins, through a grizzled grin that would outlast the frosty reminder of his hot night.

"And I want to tell you," he said at ice level, nodding up to the press box, "the view's a lot better from down here than from up there."

Higgins made his much anticipated return to the Habs lineup after missing 18 games with something much more complicated than what was termed, for the sake of convenience, a sprained ankle.

The 23-year-old was beaming as he peeled off his uniform, having just played a very healthy 15:08, most of it with his old first-linemates Saku Koivu and Michael Ryder. He skated 2:03 on the power play, 2:50 shorthanded, 10:15 at even strength, was credited with a hit and took four of the Canadiens' 33 shots.

The thought was that Higgins would be eased back into game shape, that he could expect five to seven minutes of action in his first game since Nov. 4. That would be a similar return to those this season of defencemen Mathieu Dandenault and Francis Bouillon, following their hamstring and knee injuries.

On Friday, awaiting the green light to face the Penguins, Higgins said he'd "lean on the coach" to get more ice time, if he felt up to it.

As it turned out, head coach Guy Carbonneau did the leaning, quickly vaulting Higgins from his early fourth-line assignment with Mark Streit and Maxim Lapierre to rejoin Koivu and Ryder on the premier trio.

"Yeah, I heard that five to seven minutes, too," joked Higgins, who logged 5:15 in the first period alone. "I felt pretty good out there, like I didn't miss a beat. Maybe I was a step slower, but hopefully that will come in the next game (tomorrow in Buffalo).

"Overall, my conditioning was good, and I thought I could have played even more," Higgins said.

"It felt good being back with Saks and Rides, and tonight was a good first step, something I can build on."

If Higgins was a step off the pace, it escaped the eye of his captain and centreman. Koivu scored two second-period goals four minutes apart and continued to display his leadership both on the ice and in the dressing room, after the Canadiens cheesecuttered through the first period with a measly three shots.

"Chris is the type of player who wants to be out there, feeling warm and comfortable," Koivu said. "So maybe it's just more that he's not yet playing the minutes he's used to.

"You've got to be patient with him, give him the time to get back into game shape. But he's not lost anything.

"Chris was a huge part of our team before he got hurt. He brings so much more for our offence, and also the PK (penalty-kill). A couple of moves he made in the third period, with his speed, were fun to watch."

Koivu was quick to praise Guillaume Latendresse, who ably completed the first line during Higgins's absence, but found himself on Saturday's fourth line. Latendresse played a team-low 8:57, in part because of the extensive use of special teams.


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It's great to see Higgins back, he has scored three times since coming back from is injury, and I am very glad to see him back. At first Guy didnt want to give him a lot of minutes because they didnt want him to get tired quickly, well now he's back to playing like he was before he got injured. But I think that Ryder should go on the second line because I believe Latendresse is playing better then Ryder, and he needs to stay on the first line, and play with Koivu.
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