Montreal (37-24-7) at Pittsburgh (39-21-8)

By MIKE LIPKA, STATS Editor Friday, Mar 11, 2011 Puck Drop: 2:00 pm EST Sat Mar 12, 2011

The Montreal Canadiens looked unsteady in their first game following a serious injury to one of their best young forwards.

Perhaps they could draw some inspiration from the Pittsburgh Penguins, who continue to fare remarkably well without their two biggest stars.

Both teams look to continue their pursuits of division leaders Saturday as they finish their season series at Consol Energy Center.

The Canadiens (37-24-7) are still dealing with the aftermath of Tuesday’s hit by Boston’s Zdeno Chara(notes), which left Max Pacioretty(notes) with a severe concussion and cracked vertebra.

While the NHL opted not to suspend Chara, Montreal police have launched a criminal investigation into the hit - a step Pacioretty opposes.

“I was disappointed that the NHL did not suspend Zdeno Chara,” Pacioretty said in a statement. “However, I have no desire for him to be prosecuted legally. I feel that the incident, as ugly as it was, was part of a hockey game.”

Pacioretty ranks fourth on the team in points per game and fifth with 14 goals, and the 22-year-old winger had been emerging lately with eight tallies in his last 13 games.

Perhaps preoccupied by concerns about their teammate, who is out indefinitely after being released from the hospital Thursday, the Canadiens couldn’t extend their winning streak to six Thursday in St. Louis, losing 4-1.

“You’re concerned about him, but at the end of the day, we’re professionals,” captain Brian Gionta(notes) said. “We’re going to go out there and put things behind us. I just think our effort wasn’t there.”

Montreal, in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, is still hoping to catch the first-place Bruins in the Northeast Division, while the Penguins (39-21-8) are within four points of Atlantic- and East-leading Philadelphia.

Pittsburgh has remained among the conference’s elite despite a lengthy stretch without Sidney Crosby(notes) and Evgeni Malkin(notes). While Malkin is out for the season following knee surgery, Crosby’s chances of returning from a concussion remain uncertain.

Since the Penguins lost their first three games without Crosby, they’re 13-7-4, including wins over Boston and Buffalo in their last two. They beat the Sabres 3-1 on Tuesday, getting key second-period goals from James Neal(notes) and defenseman Zbynek Michalek(notes), who each scored for the first time with Pittsburgh.

Neal was playing his seventh game since arriving via trade from Dallas, while Michalek has played 59 after signing as a free agent in the offseason.

“Both of those guys were pretty relieved and had pretty big smiles on their faces,” coach Dan Bylsma said.

Bylsma may be especially comfortable behind the bench Saturday in his first game after he was rewarded with a three-year contract extension.

“I think what we’ve been able to accomplish so far his season,” general manager Ray Shero said, “even with players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal(notes) out of the lineup for extended periods of time, is a testament to his coaching system, his adaptability, and his composure under pressure.”

Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury(notes) also has helped, ranking among the NHL’s top 10 in wins (30) and goals-against average (2.33). The Montreal-area native, however, has struggled against his hometown team, going 13-11-1 with a 3.22 GAA including playoffs.

The Penguins are 1-1-1 in the season series. They ended a four-game losing streak to Montreal, which included the final two games of their East semifinal series last season, with a 5-2 win in the most recent meeting Jan. 12.

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Saturday, Mar 12