Improbable is probably the right word to use when describing the Montreal Canadiens' playoff success this season. That is, unless you are a member of the Montreal Canadiens.
Do you know what else is improbable? Any team winning multiple playoff rounds with its top centre contributing zero goals and two assists. And yet here the Habs are.
The fact of the matter is the Canadiens don’t need much offensively from Phillip Danault if he can continue to do what he’s done defensively in these playoffs -- and that is shut down some of the most productive offensive players in the NHL.
Danault’s name has lingered around the top five in Selke Trophy voting the past two seasons, finishing sixth last year and seventh in 2018-19. While Danault’s Selke case is not as strong this year as it’s been in recent years, he is showing in these playoffs why he is one of the top defensive forwards in the league.
On the surface, Danault’s numbers don’t jump off the page. In just under 171 minutes of five-on-five ice time in the playoffs, the Canadiens have been slightly outshot and out-chanced with Danault on the ice. They have been outscored 4-2, as well. Three of those goals came in the first three games against the Maple Leafs. After dropping Game 4 of that series the Canadiens have done nothing but win since, in part because of how effective Danault has been shutting down the opposition's best players.
Against the Maple Leafs, Danault centred a line with Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar that was matched up predominantly against the Leafs' top line of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and Zach Hyman. The same Auston Matthews who led the NHL in goals and Mitch Marner who finished top five in points during the regular season.
In their head-to-head minutes, the Danault line accomplished what it set out to, which is draw even against the Matthews line. Neither line scored while the other was on the ice. The Matthews line had a slight edge in shots and quality shots, but the Danault line managed to play a low-event game against one of the most dangerous offensive lines in the league. In doing so, Carey Price and the Canadiens depth were able to persevere against a Leafs team that sorely missed having its captain John Tavares out of the line-up.
In the final two games of the series, with Tatar on the bench, Jake Evans joined Danault and Gallagher on the top line. This trio limited the Matthews line to just two shots on goal from the slot combined in Games 6 and 7. All told, Danault went head-to-head with Matthews for 57 minutes and 13 seconds at five-on-five in the opening round and the Canadiens were outscored 1-0. That’s a win for Montreal.
In the second round against Winnipeg, Danault alongside Gallagher and Artturi Lehkonen dominated the Jets' top offensive players.
Playing mainly against either Nikolaj Ehlers, Blake Wheeler, and Andrew Copp or Kyle Connor, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and Wheeler, the Danault line completely shut down the Jets' top offensive threats while producing a sizeable amount of chances and chipping in a pair of goals.
A key to the Jets' offensive success all season had been their ability to score by cycling the puck. Winnipeg finished the regular season fifth in cycle goals at even strength. Against the Danault line, the Jets' top two line combinations did not register a single cycle scoring chance and finished the series with a 0.48 expected goal total.
So, what makes him so valuable as a defence-first centre for the Canadiens? To start, if there’s a face-off anywhere outside the offensive zone, there’s a good chance Danault is taking it. Through two rounds, Danault has taken 149 draws in the defensive zone. Nobody else in the playoffs has cracked 100. Nobody else on the Canadiens has cracked 50. Danault also leads all Canadiens with 73 face-offs taken in the neutral zone, 30 more than Nick Suzuki who ranks second.
While Danault isn’t an imposing figure, listed at 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, good luck pushing him out of a battle. Danault ranks fifth among all forwards in the playoffs, averaging 5.3 puck battle wins per game. Another hallmark of his game is anticipating where the attacking team is looking to move the puck next and getting his stick in passing lanes. Over the past few seasons, Danault has consistently ranked among the top forwards in the game at blocking passes, especially in his own end. In the playoffs, no forward averages more blocked passes in the defensive zone than Danault’s three per game. This particular skill comes in handy on the penalty kill where Montreal is a playoff-best 90.3 per cent and Danault leads all Canadiens forwards in ice-time.
Looking ahead to the juggernaut that awaits, be it Vegas or Colorado, Danault and the Canadiens will no doubt face their toughest test yet. However, Danault has quietly been able to play opposing top lines fairly even over the past couple of seasons.
If Danault can do what he’s done to the Leafs and Jets top lines in the next round and turn the offensive battle into one decided by depth, the Canadiens' Cinderella story may once again not be over as soon as most people think.