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Canadian Press
12/15/2006 5:36:42 PM

MONTREAL (CP) - Winger Chris Higgins will return for one of the Montreal Canadiens' hottest games of the season - a visit from the Pittsburgh Penguins and their star centre Sidney Crosby.

Higgins has been out since Nov. 4 with a sprained left ankle, but has been practising with his teammates for more than a week and says he's ready to go.

"It's totally healed now," Higgins said Friday. "There's no pain when I'm skating. I even fell on it couple of times and there were no problems."

The speedy Higgins was leading the Canadiens in scoring with 13 points in 13 games, including three short-handed goals, when he was injured. He has missed 18 games.

The 23-year-old's return is timely, not only because of the much-anticipated first visit of the season by Crosby, rookie Evgeni Malkin and the rest of the gifted young Penguins to the sold-out Bell Centre.

With Higgins back, the Canadiens will place forward Steve Begin on the injured reserve list, retroactive to Dec. 12, with a sore back. Begin is listed as day-to-day, but will sit out a third straight game.

That frees up a roster spot for impressive rookie Maxim Lapierre to remain with the team for a third consecutive game. Lapierre has a goal and an assist since being recalled from AHL Hamilton this week.

And centre Radek Bonk is not certain to play. He suffered a broken nose and cuts that needed seven stitches to close when he took a puck in the face in a 4-2 win over Tampa Bay on Thursday.

Bonk will wear a full visor for the team's game-day skate on Saturday morning and then a decision will be made on whether to put him in the lineup, coach Guy Carbonneau said.

Defenceman Sheldon Souray, playing through a right wrist injury, didn't practise Friday but will play.

Should both Bonk and Begin miss the game, it would take out two of the Canadiens' top checking centres for a game against the most dangerous scoring centre in the league - Crosby.

"We have players capable of doing that job, so we're not worried about that," said Carbonneau. "It's the same challenge we had in our last game against Brad Richards, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis.

"We know their team will be ready. Sidney likes to play here in Montreal. He'll be pumped up."

Crosby's father Troy, a goaltender, was drafted 240th overall by Montreal in 1984, the same year Patrick Roy was selected 51st overall. His 19-year-old son, the NHL scoring leader, seems to play his best against the Habs.

He had three goals and three assists in four games against the Canadiens last year, including two game-winning goals, one of them in a shootout. The Penguins went 3-1-0 against Montreal.

"He's proved that he's the best player in the league right now," added Carbonneau.

Checking winger Mike Johnson, who joined Montreal from Phoenix this season, has never faced Crosby but knows he will present a special challenge.

"Whoever is out against him will have their hands full," said Johnson. "He's just so explosive.

"He's quick and he makes everything happen. You won't stop him, you can just try to contain him, limit his opportunities. But in the end, he'll get his points. That's just the reality of playing against players that good."

In practice Friday, Higgins skated in Bonk's spot with Johnson and Alexander Perezhogin. But what the lines will be in the game is not certain.

In Higgins' absence, his spot on the top line with Saku Koivu and Michael Ryder was taken by rookie Guillaume Latendresse, who produced seven goals and five assists in 18 games.

Carbonneau could put Higgins back in that spot, or move him onto the second line with Alex Kovalev and Sergei Samsonov or give him reduced ice time on another line. The coach hopes to ease Higgins back with restricted playing time, but his return gives him several options.

What concerns Carbonneau most is getting a better effort than Montreal showed Thursday against Tampa Bay. The Lightning outshot Montreal 33-10 through the first two periods until the Canadiens woke up in the third to secure their third win in four games.

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