The Montreal Canadiens got some good news on Friday as forward Michael Cammalleri returned to practice with his teammates at the club's practice facility in Brossard.
"It feels like the first day of school a little bit," he told reporters with a smile. "(I) tried to pretend like I wasn't excited, you know, like no big deal."
The Canadiens' season appeared to take a turn for the worse back in late January when Cammalleri suffered a knee injury on a check by Ottawa defenceman Anton Volchenkov. But the Habs have been on a tear in the 15 games that he missed - going 11-4 and vaulting from 10th place in the Eastern Conference to seventh.
Montreal is also just one point behind the sixth-place Ottawa Senators and Philadelphia Flyers. The Northeast Division-leading Buffalo Sabres have 84 points with two games in hand and the two teams face each other twice down the stretch.
Cammalleri, who still leads the team with 26 goals and a plus-10 rating, alternated with winger Tom Pyatt on a line with Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn.
"It was really positive - couldn't have went better," said Cammalleri. "It was pain-free and didn't really restrict me much. Whenever they give me that green light, I'm ready."
Head coach Jacques Martin expects his top sniper to be back in the lineup sometime next week, while defenceman Marc-Andre Bergeron - out since Feb. 4 with a knee injury - could play Monday at home against Ottawa.
The timetable means that neither player will be in the lineup for Saturday's game in Toronto against the Maple Leafs. Montreal has been one of the league's hottest teams with a six-game winning streak, while the Leafs are 5-2-1 since the trade deadline.
"We're excited to have (Cammalleri) back in the lineup," said defenceman Hal Gill. "Right now we just want to focus on a game at a time and get him back as soon as we can."
With Cammalleri and Bergeron expected to return next week, the Canadiens will have their healthiest lineup since the puck dropped for their season opener on Oct. 1. Defenceman Andrei Markov missed the first 36 games of the season with a leg injury and the team also took its share of hits with injuries to Andrei Kostitsyn, Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta.
Veteran defenceman Paul Mara's season in Montreal is all but over, as he will travel to Boston and undergo shoulder surgery next Tuesday. Mara was listed as "did not dress" the past eight games and was injured for 11 games before that.