BROSSARD, Quebec -- When the Montreal Canadiens reached the halfway point of the season, many media outlets around town polled the team's fans to ask who was the MVP of the surprisingly strong first half.
Just as surprising was the player who garnered a strong portion of the vote: Brandon Prust.
A free-agent acquisition who was signed away from the New York Rangers, Prust helped address a serious need for toughness on the Canadiens while proving to be a valuable penalty killer and a mentor for rookie forwards Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher.
Then, in Prust's first game of the second half, he separated his shoulder.
SOG: 27 | +/-: 13
"You don't want to come back just to play your old team, you want to make sure you're safe to come back [and] you won't do any more damage to the shoulder," Prust said after his first full practice with his teammates since being injured March 9 against the Tampa Bay Lightning. "It feels good, I'm ready to go. It doesn't matter who we're playing."
Prust was back in his usual spot on the right side of Lars Eller and opposite Galchenyuk on the Canadiens' third line at practice Friday.
"Brandon brings a little bit of everything," Eller said. "He brings some grit, he can pass and he can finish. Most of all he works hard. We missed him and it's going to be good to have him back. He's going to add something."
His presence may be most felt on the penalty kill, where the Canadiens had a 75-percent success rate in Prust's absence; they were at 81.2 percent before he was hurt.
The Canadiens went 5-2-1 in the eight games Prust missed, which sounds pretty good but which represents Montreal's second-worst eight-game stretch of the season (the Canadiens went 4-3-1 from Jan. 3 to Feb. 14).
Prust's absence snapped a streak of 223 straight games played for the rugged forward, and he didn't enjoy the forced time off one bit.
"It was tough," he said. "I hadn't missed any games the last couple of years. It's tough watching."
The return of Prust to Montreal's third line could serve as a boost to Galchenyuk, who appeared to have hit a bit of a rookie wall at the time of Prust's injury but who has played much better over the past two weeks.
Galchenyuk, the No. 3 pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, was particularly good in Montreal's challenging set of back-to-back road games against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins on Tuesday and Wednesday, looking more confident with the puck and creating scoring chances for himself and his teammates. It was a heady play in the Boston zone by Galchenyuk that led to P.K. Subban's rocket slap shot that gave the Canadiens a 2-0 lead against the Bruins, one they would ultimately squander before coming back to win 6-5 in a shootout, one night after losing a tight 1-0 battle in Pittsburgh.
"I remember Alex the first time we played in Boston. He was better the second time," Canadiens coach Michel Therrien said. "He had more confidence. I thought that line played well in Pittsburgh and I thought Alex played well in Boston, he made some plays and went into traffic. That's the process of developing young guys; he was more prepared to play in that type of game and he did well."
Galchenyuk was in full agreement with his coach and came away pleased with how he did in two games that came close to resembling the type of intensity and hostile environments you would see in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"They were two big games because both teams were really close to us in the standings, and I knew it would be a playoff-type of game," Galchenyuk said. "I just wanted to work hard and play better, because I didn't like the way I played in our last games against Pittsburgh and Boston. I thought this time I did a better job."
Eller has been playing center with Galchenyuk for the bulk of the season and said he has noticed a difference in the 19-year-old's play over the past few weeks.
"I think there was a lot of junior player in him the first 20 or 25 games," Eller said. "But now he's keeping it a little simpler and working harder battling for loose pucks and backchecking harder, things he wasn't doing so much in the beginning."
Prust is not the only new player in the Canadiens lineup Saturday; defenseman Nathan Beaulieu will make his NHL debut on defense. The No. 17 pick in the 2011 draft is the third call-up from the American Hockey League's Hamilton Bulldogs to get a chance to fill the sixth defenseman's spot in Montreal in recent weeks, following Greg Pateryn's three-game audition and Jarred Tinordi's six games with the Canadiens before being sent down Friday.
"There's a door open for us, so we want to take that opportunity to give a chance to our young prospects," he said. "We have some good young prospects on defense, so we want to give them an opportunity to see where they're at so that when they go down they know better what they need to work on."
The bonus with Beaulieu is he could help the second unit of the Canadiens power play, which has Josh Gorges and Francis Bouillon manning the points, two players better known for their work in their own end. Beaulieu has high-end offensive skills, but his play without the puck has remained a question mark, something Therrien said is starting to be remedied in Hamilton.
Therrien also thought back to his time with the Penguins when a defenseman with a similar label was struggling in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre before arriving in Pittsburgh and thriving.
"For certain players, it can be tougher to play in the AHL than it is in the NHL," Therrien said. "For example when I was in Pittsburgh, one of the reasons we called up Kristopher Letang from Wilkes-Barre was because he was a healthy scratch. As a coach, when I saw he was a healthy scratch I wanted to work with him in the NHL. So for some players, it can be different.
"But you have to look at each case individually; I'm not making a comparison so much as just drawing a parallel. In Beaulieu's case, he has skills, he has nice vision with the puck. He needed to improve his play without the puck and he's done that. So we want to see where he is at in terms of playing at this level."