First Williams baited Kulak into an ill-advised decision in the Hurricanes zone and then he burned him down the ice for a quality scoring chance at the other end. Then Kulak recovered the puck behind Montreal’s net and Williams stole it away from him immediately for another shot at a goal.
The 24-year-old defenceman managed to escape that situation unscathed. He wasn’t as lucky in the third period, when Sebastian Aho drove around him and made it a one-goal hockey game with 4:22 to go in regulation.
It was a struggle for most the night for Kulak. He showed his first real blemishes in 10 games with the Canadiens. His first stumble since being placed on the team’s top pair with Shea Weber eight games ago.
Now the question is: How does he bounce back from it quickly?
"I think it’s just a matter of going through my same process of preparing for the next game," said Kulak after Friday’s 45-minute practice. "I don’t change anything. I don’t think I’ve got to hit a homerun play now to make things great. I just stick to the process and do the same thing, go about my same routine and just keep focused. I push myself enough that it’s not like I will let my foot off the gas or put crazy amount of pressure on myself. I just have to play hockey."
It’s a mature approach for a player who played his first 19 games of the season with the AHL’s Laval Rocket. A player who fell to the bottom of the Calgary Flames’ NHL depth chart after appearing in 71 games with them last year.
It would be natural for such a player to lose confidence and allow some self-doubt to creep in, but Kulak’s experience is helping him mitigate that.
He’s had his ups and downs since he was drafted in the fourth round of the 2012 Draft and he’s learned from them. And with only 111 games of action—at this level—under his belt, he knows there will be a few more bumps in the road. Especially in a role that has him playing against the top opposition on a nightly basis and playing more than six minutes a night above his career average.
"It’s a good league, and the best guys are dialed in every shift, every night, and that’s where I aspire to get to," said Kulak. "Last night was a time where if you get caught snoozing for a split second, the puck will end up in the back of your net. I think it’s something I can learn from and it’s just back to work for me today and moving on."
That attitude—and Kulak’s ability to play aggressively—is what’s given Canadiens coach Claude Julien the confidence to plug Kulak into a role most assumed he was too green to fill.
On Friday, the coach explained why he’s willing to keep Kulak next to Weber for Montreal’s next game, which will be against the Ottawa Senators at the Bell Centre on Saturday.
"He’s a guy that continues to skate well, closes the play well," Julien said. "I know yesterday wasn’t a great game for him. He had some tough moments there. Those things are going to happen to everybody, but I like the way he plays on his toes. He closes plays, he carries the puck, and sometimes, if anything, he might need to make a simpler play at times. Last night he was probably forcing too much, but other than that he competes hard. It doesn’t matter who’s in the corner with him, he’s going in there and he’s going to battle. Sometimes he wins with aggressiveness, sometimes he wins it with commitment to go and get the puck out of there versus bigger guys. I think he handles himself well."
The eye-test has matched so far, but Kulak agreed that he complicated matters in Thursday’s game.
It was when he knocked down a puck in the offensive zone and tried to force a shot to the net that he first got burned by Williams, who kept his lane, blocked the shot and took the puck down the ice for a breakaway chance on Canadiens goaltender Carey Price.
Kulak recognized his mistake.
"If you’re always playing safe, you’ll probably make mistakes," he said. "But pushing myself and trying to make something out of nothing will come with its own lessons, too."
The important thing is that the Stony Plain, Atla., native is open to learning and doing everything he can to evolve into the player the Canadiens want him to be. The player they believe he can be.
"I would say he’s a real good professional," Julien said. "He’s here early every day, he’s doing his things. He’s one of those guys that you see it in his demeanor, you see it when you watch him do different things that he’s a good pro. He’s does the right things. He’s one of those guys that prepares well. I’m sure he makes sure that he has the right amount of rest and all that stuff. He’s a true pro and you know that’s what he was when he was in Laval. He was a good example for a lot of players there but he continues to do that here and I think a player like that maintains his game for the most part. Whether he has a little dip here or there, I think those are the guys you get some consistency from."