MONTREAL — It was a moment none of the 21,302 fans in attendance at the Bell Centre saw, but one we’re fortunate Sportsnet cameras caught prior to the Montreal Canadiens losing 2-1 in overtime to the visiting Ottawa Senators.
It featured freshly enshrined Hockey Hall of Famer Guy Carbonneau opening the door to the tunnel that leads the Canadiens on to the ice so he could give Phillip Danault a handshake.
“I was trying to get his attention a little bit because I enjoy the way he plays,” Carbonneau later explained to Sportsnet’s Kyle Bukauskas at first intermission. “I think that’s how I made my mark as a hockey player, and I see the same kind of play in his game. So I just wanted to wish him good luck.”
Carbonneau, from Sept-Iles, Que., wanted to get the Victoriaville, Que., native’s attention because he “enjoys the way he plays.” Think about that for a second.
Let that sink in.
A three-time winner of the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward, a three-time Stanley Cup Champion and former captain of the Canadiens praising the team’s most responsible and important centreman. A legend in his own right passing the torch in his own subtle, but meaningful way.
Just a few minutes later, Danault stood in front of his seat on Montreal’s bench watching Carbonneau’s 12-year career with the Canadiens highlighted in a video montage. He looked on in admiration as the crowd serenaded Carbonneau with rousing applause and chants of “Guy! Guy! Guy!” and he thought about the kind of legacy he could leave in Montreal when all is said and done.
“It just shows the pride we can have in our defensive game,” the 26-year-old said. “Sometimes people don’t see those little details that we can do, but a two-way player is what the game’s about now. So many little details. Backcheck hard, block shots – it’s all those little details people don’t really see. Carbo got recognized for that and it’s an awesome privilege and well-deserved.”
Last year, Danault received the seventh-most votes for the Selke — a sign more and more people are starting to recognize what makes him such a vital player to Montreal.
In Wednesday’s game, most of the signs were there.
Sure, it was odd to see Danault win just 42 per cent of his faceoffs given that he had won 53.6 per cent of his 431 draws through Montreal’s first 21 games — and more than 64 per cent of them over his last five games. But the other stuff he did in the game was the same stuff he does just about every night.
Start with Danault’s work on a first-period, four-minute penalty kill. He played 2:11 of it — hounding the puck all over the ice, clearing it out of Montreal’s zone when he had to and playing aggressively up in Ottawa’s zone to disrupt the Senators’ breakout.
Or how about Danault’s work in the first minute of second period, when he made a desperate play and dove through Craig Anderson’s crease to shove a puck over to Nick Suzuki, who promptly put it into a gaping net to give the Canadiens a 1-0 lead? That was his 11th assist and 17th point of the season.
That’s the overt stuff anyone would recognize.
It’s the covert plays Danault made all over the ice to support the puck in all three zones that is the stuff his game is made of. It’s about the way he’s always on the right side of the puck, the way he almost always makes the right play with it, the way he covers his teammates when they take chances.
Danault was born in 1993, or a year before Carbonneau was traded from Montreal to St. Louis. He has no memory of his time with the Canadiens, nor does he have anything more than highlights to go on of Carbonneau’s time with the Blues or the Dallas Stars. But he’s very much a player built in the same image; a player playing against the opposition’s best every night and coming out on top on most of them.
One difference is that Danault is an unheralded leader on this team, whereas Carbonneau wore a letter on his jersey for much of his time in Montreal.
Here’s what 19-year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who played his best game of the season in the loss to Ottawa, said afterwards about Danault:
“That’s very good for me to watch and follow a guy like that,” the Pori, Finland native started. “He’s doing pretty much everything right when he’s on the ice, whether it’s in the D-zone or the offensive zone. The coach trusts him, and there’s a big reason for that.
“And he’s always in a good mood. He’s very humble. He doesn’t make a big deal of himself, and I think all the guys in the room respect guys like that.”
Suzuki, 20, who grew up idolizing Boston Bruins centre and four-time Selke winner Patrice Bergeron, is trying to soak up everything Danault does.
What’s he specifically focused on?
“Definitely his positioning, (and his) placement of sticks,” said the rookie. “He always plays right in the battle; good stick on puck and he always seems to come out with (the puck). And also, offensively, he’s really good down in the corners at finding guys.”
Danault is good at finding guys all over the ice. In this game, his line with Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar carried an 88-per-cent share of the shots at even strength through two periods, and he set Gallagher up with a pristine opportunity to ice the game in overtime.
Brady Tkachuk ended up winning it for Ottawa on a clean break from the offensive blue line seconds later, while Danault looked on helplessly from the bench.
“It’s a frustrating outcome,” he said. “But we’ll come back and keep working hard.”
That part is never in doubt when it comes to Danault.
He had processed and filed away Wednesday’s loss, but one part will remain with him forever.
“He’s not a man of many words, but he gave me a look and I knew exactly what he was thinking,” Danault said of his pre-game encounter with Carbonneau. “It was a look of, ‘Keep going, Phil.’ Then he shook my hand and that was really something.”