Canadiens’ Benn finding his game, his confidence just in time

Montreal Canadiens' Jordie Benn. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

BROSSARD, Que. — Let’s just call it Jordie Benn’s Dikembe Mutombo moment.

Max Domi had stickhandled through everyone at Montreal Canadiens practice on Monday when he suddenly found himself with only Benn standing between him and a scoring chance on Carey Price. He juked right and then slickly pulled back left, which was when Benn extended a pokecheck and knocked the puck 100 feet down the ice.

The Canadiens defenceman, who smiled through his bushy beard, raised his hand up and started waiving his index finger back and forth while simultaneously shaking his head from side to side — a move that Mutumbo patented as his post-shot block celebration over the course of his hall-of-fame NBA career.

“I was just messing with the guys today, but I might have to bring that back around a little bit,” Benn said afterwards.

Perhaps it won’t be long before we see it again, which tells you a lot about where his confidence is at right now — and how far it appears to have come since training camp got underway one month ago.

What we saw back then was a player who was holding his stick too tight, reacting to plays too late, bobbling pucks in his own end, and failing to connect on simple breakout passes. He looked like the player we saw for most of last season, one who appeared to be in danger of not make the opening roster and one who would have a tough time getting into the lineup if he did stick with Montreal to start.

But, through two games the Canadiens have played this season, Benn has (unexpectedly) morphed back into the guy who impressed in his first days with the organization following his trade from the Dallas Stars in 2017. You know, the guy who the Canadiens elected to protect over Alexei Emelin in the Expansion Draft in June of that year.

“I wanted to get back to being reliable,” Benn said. “I talked to [Canadiens coach] Claude [Julien] at the end of last year and he said when they traded for me he knew that when I was out there, he could rely on me to do my job. Obviously we got away from that last year, but last year was a huge learning experience from everybody, and we took it into this year and I think we’ve been doing pretty well.”

Benn was steady as a rock against the Toronto Maple Leafs on opening night, helping the Canadiens control over 61 per cent of the shot attempts at even strength when he was on the ice and playing his role in allowing them to pick up a point in the standings. He was also physical, aggressive in all three zones, and quite effective in picking his spots to rush the puck out of his own end.

Benn was even better in Montreal’s 5-1 win over Pittsburgh on Saturday, particularly on plays in the second period — when he broke up a back-door passing play between Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel before shutting down Evgeni Malkin on a one-on-one break.

“I wasn’t really thinking much about it,” Benn said of facing down Malkin, who might be the most dangerous one-on-one player in all of hockey outside of Edmonton’s Connor McDavid. “All I was thinking was get my feet going. He’s a fast guy and he can go left and right just as fast as he can go straight forward. I just tried to match his speed and get my stick on the puck so he wouldn’t go around me.”

There was no Mutombo-like celebration on the play from Benn, but its significance wasn’t lost on him.

He knows that a year ago the Canadiens likely would have been fishing the puck out of their own net on a play like that, and he would have been taking that lonely skate back to the bench while wondering what he could have done better.

But now things are different.

“I just feel good,” Benn said. “Obviously it’s a good feeling that you’ve got those guys coming down on you and you have the confidence and the ability to go one-on-one with them and stop them. It’s a confidence booster when you get back to the bench and you get the praise from the fellas. It’s a good feeling.”

Maybe it initially came from earning coach Claude Julien’s trust to be in the lineup over Karl Alzner to start the Canadiens’ season. Or, maybe it was there earlier and we just couldn’t see it.

“Pre-season is a time to show what you can do, but it’s also the time to knock the rust off,” Benn said. “We had a long summer, so you just want to get the legs back underneath you.

“I just wanted to work hard and knock the rust off.”

That Benn has been able to do that and emerge in short order as the player the Canadiens want him to be is essential.

With David Schlemko suffering a knee injury on the eve of the regular season, Montreal was going to be in tough to find a player who could offer as versatile a game from its third defence pairing. Benn stepping up in the role has helped Julien justify sitting Alzner for his team’s first two games.

It’s a foregone conclusion that Benn will be in Alzner’s place for Thursday’s home opener against the Los Angeles Kings, too.

“[Benn’s] play itself is definitely more assertive,” said Julien. “He’s assertive in all areas, whether it’s closing a play [or] whether it’s making that good first pass, and that’s the player we got when we got him at the trade deadline a year-and-a-half ago. I think he’s finding that as well.”

That explains the smile and the swagger.

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