BROSSARD – A week ahead of the NHL’s trade deadline, the Habs got better on Monday without touching a dial.
The Canadiens received some encouraging news at practice in Brossard in the form of Alex Galchenyuk, Sergei Gonchar and Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau all back on the ice in varying capacities.
Head coach Michel Therrien confirmed that Galchenyuk will be back in uniform against the Blues after missing the previous two games with the flu, while Gonchar should be the next man up, and soon – traveling with the team to St-Louis and Columbus after missing last week’s trip to Detroit and Ottawa.
“As it is right now we’re going day by day. Today was a big step. I started skating with the team – without any contact – but it’s only Day 1. We don’t have a set plan yet; we’re just seeing how my body reacts,” explained Gonchar, who participated in his first full practice since being cleared to play after taking an awkward hit into the boards from Maple Leafs forward David Clarkson on February 14.
Although four games have passed in over a week since absorbing the hit at home against Toronto, the veteran rearguard’s symptoms may have vanished, but the lasting impression left by his protégé on the blue line remains.
“His reaction was great. He jumped right in. I can’t say enough good things about him. He’s done well on the ice, he’s playing big minutes now and it seems like he’s doing better and better every game,” praised Gonchar of Nathan Beaulieu, who dropped the gloves opposite Clarkson for just his second career bout immediately following the sequence. “He made a nice pass to Max [Pacioretty] on Saturday and you can see he’s getting more comfortable now. He’s skating better, he’s shooting the puck more, he’s finding people… I think overall, it’s not just how he reacted to that play, but how he’s reacted in every game since.”
Having spent over 300 minutes of ice time paired with Beaulieu this season, Gonchar, who is 18 years his young teammate’s senior, knows better than anyone just how far the Canadiens’ first round pick from the 2011 draft has come.
“I wouldn’t say he’s fully developed. Obviously he’s a young guy who still doesn’t have much experience,” acknowledged the grizzled D-man, who himself was a former first round pick – in 1992. “He’s making good progress, but at the same time, I think he has a lot of room to improve. Nobody should be satisfied with where he is because he has the potential to become an even better player.”
Still, the absence of Gonchar has forced the 22-year-old Strathroy, ON native to mature quicker than most.
“He’s still a young defenseman who’s taking his first strides in the NHL. He started his season here before being sent down for a stint in the AHL,” recalled Therrien, who has seen Beaulieu stick with the big club full-time since returning from Hamilton on December 9. “He doesn’t have a full NHL season under his belt yet but he’s gained a lot of confidence. He doesn’t give up the puck as easily anymore. Now he just needs to work on his consistency.”
That confidence has reflected on the Habs bench boss, who isn’t shy to use the six-foot-two, 194-pounder in any situation these days – his growing ice time, including a 25:10 outing opposite Florida last Thursday, being proof of that.
What remains to be seen now is whether Beaulieu and Gonchar will be paired once again when the latter suits back up for the first time, possibly as soon as Thursday. But like the experienced defenseman himself, Beaulieu is also taking his mentor’s return one step at a time.
“We’re just fortunate that it was nothing serious. We took some precautions with him, but he’s a big part of our team and we can’t wait to have him back in the lineup.”
Vincent Cauchy is a writer for canadiens.com. Translated by Steven Nechay.
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