Canadiens’ Phillip Danault thriving as shutdown centre

Carey Price made 33 saves to pass Patrick Roy for second in wins in Montreal Canadiens history with a 3-0 victory against the Boston Bruins Saturday.

BROSSARD, Que. — Phillip Danault agrees that Montreal’s 3-0 win over the Boston Bruins this past Saturday was probably the best of his 197 games in the NHL to date.

Sure, he’s had more prolific ones. There was that explosive two-goal, two-assist performance against the New York Rangers in the early part of last season. And we’d be remiss if we failed to recall that game against the Winnipeg Jets in January of 2017, when he scored a tantalizing, end-to-end goal to bring his total to two on the night in a 7-4 win for the Canadiens.

But we don’t think Danault has ever been more effective over 18 minutes of playing time than he was in skating as the centre on two separate lines to shut down what has to be considered the most dangerous trio in all of hockey.

Neither does he.

“I think it’s huge for my confidence,” the 25-year-old Victoriaville, Que., native said after Monday’s practice.

How could it not be?

To win seven of 12 defensive-zone faceoffs against his role model, Patrice Bergeron, to help hold Brad Marchand to zero shots at even strength, and to help keep the explosive David Pastrnak largely to the outside of the scoring zone takes a herculean effort, and that’s what Danault delivered.

He also won nine of the other 14 faceoffs he took, blocked a big shot to protect the team’s two-goal lead late in the third period, and assisted on Jordie Benn’s insurance marker, which was scored into an empty net with 29 seconds remaining.

“Scoring points for me is only a bonus,” Danault said.

Not that he doesn’t want to do more of it. Playing on a line with Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar, he’s expected to contribute at both ends of the ice. And in order for this to be the season he’s hoping to have, he’ll have to hold up his end of the bargain on offence by producing a bit more than the five points he’s notched through Montreal’s first 10 games.

But without Danault’s defensive contribution, the Canadiens would certainly not be 6-2-2 on their season. And it’s fair to say they’d be in a world of hurt against the type of competition they’ll face this week.

If Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak are the cream of the crop, Dallas stars forwards Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov present a near-equal challenge.

It’s one Danault looks forward to as the Stars visit the Bell Centre for a game with the Canadiens on Tuesday. Just as he’s excited to face Washington’s Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Jakub Vrana when the Capitals visit on Thursday, and Tampa Bay’s J.T. Miller, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov when the Lightning play in Montreal on Saturday.

“[Canadiens coach] Claude [Julien] trusts me, but I think I showed him that he can trust me,” said Danault. “You don’t just get the trust; it’s earned. I work hard in practices and in games and do everything I can to keep the puck out of our net. His trust has been huge for me, mentally and physically, to stay involved in the game. I love taking the draw in my own zone and winning it, and go change and the boys are like, ‘Good job, Phil.’

“I take pride in those little details.”

That’s been noticeable since Danault landed in Montreal via trade with the Chicago Blackhawks back in February of 2016.

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But he’s taken it to another level in the early part of this season. It’s why he’s Montreal’s most-used forward at even strength and their most heavily relied upon forward in the defensive zone, where he has started more than 58 per cent of his shifts.

That Danault has still helped the Canadiens control 57 per cent of the shot attempts when he’s on the ice — starting the majority of his shifts 180 feet away from the opposition’s net and playing against their best line — speaks to how he’s performing in his role.

“I’m learning to be really strong and to not make any mistakes,” said Danault.

And he’s enjoying every minute.

“I talked about it with my wife; how lucky I am to play in the NHL like I always dreamed of,” he said. “To be a first-line centre in Montreal, being trusted by the coach and getting to play the game I love that I played since I’m three years old; I’m living the dream every kid wants to have, and I definitely got lucky. I get emotional about it.”

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