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Return of Diaz doesn't help Habs, or Jets, for that matter

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MONTREAL -- The return of Raphael Diaz could not have come at a better time for the Montreal Canadiens.

The Swiss defenceman was back to face the Washington Capitals on Saturday night after missing 25 games with a concussion.

The club had been reeling on defence since an injury to Alexei Emelin on April 6, and Diaz is expected to bring his skill and puck-moving ability into his spot alongside veteran Andrei Markov.

"I did a lot of skating this week and yeah, I'm ready to play," the 27-year-old said before his return, a 5-1 loss to the Caps in which he played almost 20 minutes. "Of course the game speed is different.

"I need a couple of shifts and then I'll be ready."

Diaz was a key player for Montreal through the first 19 games of the season before he was injured on Feb. 25 against Ottawa.

With P.K. Subban missing the first six games while getting his contract signed, Diaz stepped up. And even after Subban returned, the five-foot-11 Diaz was usually getting more than 20 minutes per game as well as seeing some power play duty.

That gave him a chance to show the offensive flair that had made him a star in his native Switzerland before he signed as an undrafted free agent with Montreal last season. He had a goal and 12 assists before the injury.

His return gives Montreal six experienced defencemen and restores the righty-lefty balance on the three pairings, as Francis Bouillon can return to the left side with newcomer Davis Drewiske.

That should help a team that gave up 24 goals in the first six games after Emelin's season ended with a torn knee ligament, which he suffered while putting a hit on Boston's Milan Lucic. It included a three-game stretch of losses in which they allowed 18 goals.

He won't replace Emelin's physical presence, but he will help move the puck out of the zone and pick up the pace of the game.

"It's a big lift and a confidence booster for everyone," rearguard Josh Gorges said of Diaz's return. "I think he's an outstanding hockey player.

"He's a guy that does everything well for you. He'll help solidify our top six. He can play in all situations."

Diaz struggled with injuries as a first-year NHL player last season, when he had only three goals and 16 points in 59 games.

Bad luck struck again this season against Ottawa, when he was run into while falling to the ice and had an opponent's leg clip his chin.

"The problem was that I wasn't ready," he said. "I was protecting myself to fall down.

"If I saw the leg coming, it wouldn't be that bad."

The recovery wasn't as rapid as he hoped. He wasn't able even to skate or exercise in the first weeks, but the process went quickly once he started feeling better. He has been skating for about two weeks.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 21, 2013 B6

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