Canadiens Notebook: Brett Kulak is Montreal’s unsung hero so far

Christine Simpson and Eric Engels discuss the Montreal Canadiens beating the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 3 and Claude Julien making some key decisions.

TORONTO — It was a home game, but not like the ones these guys — or any of us — are used to.

Not when you’re in a city that isn’t home and certainly not when your fans aren’t there to cheer you on.

How strange it must be to experience the adrenaline of the Stanley Cup playoffs, to have it coursing through your veins for hours after you scored the big goal to give your team its biggest win of the year, and to not be able to go home to your wife and kids and revel in it with them before it must be washed away.

Think about what it’s like if you’re Jeff Petry. If you just became the first Montreal Canadiens defenceman in 31 years to score two game-winning goals in a playoff year. Pretend you just went into a raucous PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh and helped silence it by scoring the overtime winner in Game 1 to steal away home-ice advantage from the Penguins. Picture, after suffering a tough loss in Game 2, coming home to the Bell Centre for the game you’ll eventually play hero in again.

This wasn’t what Petry dreamed of when he was telling his grade-school friends he’d be an NHL hockey player and, perhaps, a Stanley Cup champion someday.

But, it is what it is.

Nothing about this situation is normal. Not for any of us. COVID-19 has deleted normal from our lives and there may never be an undo option. Down is up, right is left, and nothing makes sense — especially not a 24th-placed team in a 24-team tournament for the Cup pushing a dynasty to the brink of elimination in an abbreviated series.

But we’re rolling with it.

So is Phillip Danault.

The Canadiens centreman expressed grave concerns about being away from his family for a long portion of time, with his wife at home taking care of their 18-month-old son.

“With everything we’re living, it’s part of the game, I guess,” Danault said Thursday, the morning after helping the Canadiens take a 2-1 series lead over the Penguins. “We’re all in the same boat, all the players. Definitely hurts, though.

“It’s fun to celebrate with your teammates, too. It’s a little different the setup — it’s like a team thing. We’re all together after the game and everything. But it definitely hurts. My wife and kid are at home, and she’s taking care of the kid, so it’s nice from her. It is hard, but it’s part of the game and we’re here right now and we’re enjoying every single minute of my playoff appearance and it’s fun so far.”

Julien’s post-game routine

If you think it’s hard for the players — and even some reporters — to settle down after a playoff game, imagine what it’s like for a coach.

Canadiens coach Claude Julien’s been doing it at this level since 2002, and he said Thursday that winding down is still a challenge.

“I don’t know that much has changed, to be honest with you,” Julien said. “Do I have trouble sleeping after a game? Absolutely. Just because you’re wound up. Win or lose, it doesn’t matter. You’re thinking — you’re like players. You got excited about the game and you’re emotionally attached to it, so that’s always what happens after games.

“But the one thing that I have done and will continue to do is, the minute the game’s over, turn the page and start to think about the next one because that’s the one that’s most important. Whether you won or lost, there’s not much you can do about it. You just want to keep yourself ahead of the game.”

Don’t be surprised if Julien comes back to original lines

With all the buzz around the changes the coach made in Game 2 — he moved Danault to a checking line with Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen, elevated Nick Suzuki to play with Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar and moved Jesperi Kotkaniemi between Joel Armia and Jonathan Drouin — he has a well-established pattern of going back to his original plan and adjusting from there.

There’s no certainty that’s what Julien will do, but it’s an educated guess. That he’s kept Tatar, Danault and Gallagher together for most of two years tells you how he feels about mixing things around. And just because a few adjustments worked in-game, it doesn’t mean he’s beholden to them.

If it is Julien’s plan to return to the base and adjust from that in-game, he’s got a tried and tested model of success given how Game 3 went.

Brett Kulak impressing

If you’re looking for Montreal’s unsung hero through the first three games of this series, he wears no. 77.

Could anyone have expected Brett Kulak to play this way — not only after his up-and-down season, but also after he had COVID-19 and missed 10 days of the team’s 13-day training camp in Phase 3?

“He’s been great,” said Canadiens captain Shea Weber after Game 3. “Given that situation, obviously he was sick and his inability to come and skate with us and work out with us… He was doing stuff on his own, but that’s not quite the same. To be in it, to stay in it mentally, it’s kudos to him. He’s done an excellent job for us so far. He was solid for us this year and he’s continued to be solid for us in this series”

With all the talk centred on the jobs Weber, Jeff Petry and Ben Chiarot are doing, there’s been little about Kulak.

But he’s averaging over 19 minutes per game, he’s setting up chances on the rush, if he has an assist in this series it’s because he’s doing a good job of getting his shot through traffic and he’s been remarkably steady in his own end — both in defending and in moving the puck or skating it out.

“I think Brett’s been great for us,” Chiarot said Thursday. “He’s a big guy, who skates really well and moves the puck. And when he’s doing all those things and he’s confident, he’s really effective for us. He’s been doing that quite a bit for us lately. He looks great for us.”

Enter Jarry?

What a decision Penguins coach Mike Sullivan has to make as far as his goaltending’s concerned.

Can anyone envision him going with Matt Murray for Game 4?

Not that Murray has been bad, he simply hasn’t been good enough. And now Sullivan must turn to Tristan Jarry, who’s been sitting on the bench for four-and-a-half months — and all three games of this series — in an elimination game.

Also, Jarry has never played in the Stanley Cup playoffs before, which isn’t necessarily good or bad. It’s just that Sullivan now has to turn to an unknown for the biggest game of the year.

The comfort in making that call is that Jarry played like a Vezina Trophy candidate for much of this past season, and that he posted a .921 save percentage over his 33 appearances.

But this is a dicey situation and no one knows how he’ll react to it.

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