NEW YORK—You have to think Shea Weber‘s 10-day rest paid dividends.
Yes, the star defenceman was sent home from Montreal’s final road trip of the regular season to nurse a lower-body injury, but he had acknowledged that if the games had meant anything—especially the last two of the four he missed—he’d have been playing in them.
It’s a good thing he didn’t.
"I feel great," Weber said on the eve of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Through four games of Montreal’s series against the New York Rangers, he has been a force to be reckoned with, logging a total of 111 minutes, registering a goal and two assists, 12 hits and a clean win on the fight card.
"He’s obviously one of the best defencemen in the league, and you see how hard he plays every single night, playing a big 30 minutes a night," said teammate Steve Ott ahead of Montreal’s Game 4 loss that tied the series 2-2 on Tuesday.
"Then you get to the playoffs and you have that nastiness to his game," he added.
Mats Zuccarello found out about Weber’s edge early on in Game 1. He was flying down the left wing, trying to break into the offensive zone, and Weber stepped up at the blue line and crushed him with a devastating hit.
J.T. Miller bit off more than he could chew in the second period of Game 2, when he came out of an after-the-whistle scrum swinging at the big man.
"He turned around and his gloves were off, and I’m pretty sure that’s the international sign for fighting," Weber said with a smile on his face.
It’s a part of hockey he enjoys, one he excels at, and he’s taking it—and the rest of his game—to another level when it matters most.
"To be able to play at a certain level for 82 games, it’s obviously not realistic," said Canadiens coach Claude Julien on Tuesday. "When you say guys elevate their game, it’s because of the situation more than anything else. But in the regular season, asking a guy to elevate his game for 82 games is really not realistic.
“Those guys, when they do that, it shows, it makes a big difference, and they’re smart enough to do it at the right time. Shea’s one of those guys. [Boston Bruins captain Zdeno] Chara’s one of those guys. You don’t like playing in their corners, you don’t like playing in front of the net when they’re around. They just play a certain style that makes you unwilling to want to spend too much time in their areas."
It’s the style Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin was bargaining for when he traded super-skilled defenceman P.K. Subban for Weber in one of the biggest blockbusters the sport has ever seen.
"He’s a diamond in the rough," said Bergevin on that June day. "People here are going to learn to appreciate what he does."
If Canadiens fans had a hard time warming up to him in the lead up to this season, they softened watching his work with Team Canada as part of a World Cup win in September. His performance at the start of the year–scoring four goals, adding six assists, and registering a league-leading plus-12—all but won them over. They were impressed with his 17-goal, 25-assist season, and it’s been common thought on social media that he’s been Montreal’s most reliable player in this series.
Don’t ask Weber to talk about it. He’s never been too comfortable talking about himself.
When asked how it felt to score his first playoff goal as a Montreal Canadien—a snapshot from the left faceoff circle in Game 3—he said: "I don’t even know how to answer that. Cool, I guess."
But if you ask anyone else about what he’s brought to this series, you’ll get a thorough evaluation.
"He’s got a cannon of a shot and you notice that right away," said Rangers rookie defenceman Brady Skjei. "He’s just a really strong, physical defenceman, but I don’t know if people realize how well he plays the percentages. He doesn’t make many mistakes."
Canadiens forward Andrew Shaw faced off against the six-foot-four, 235-pounder several times as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks for five seasons. He’s just happy to be on the same side as him now.
"In the regular season, Shea’s a dangerous player, but in the playoffs Shea’s a hungry player." said Shaw. "He’s the most ferocious player I’ve ever played against. I have had some battles with him in front. I’d say it takes a lot of courage to go back in front of the net against him. He’s so physical, and strong and powerful; it’s always tough. He’s an unbelievable defenceman."
With his rest well-managed—Montreal has taken three practices off between games in this series—there’s reason to believe the 31-year-old will continue to show it.