MONTREAL – Nathan Beaulieu took a giant step forward in his young NHL career on Saturday night, and it had nothing to do with lighting the lamp or picking up points.
When nine-year veteran David Clarkson caught rearguard Sergei Gonchar with a questionable hit late in the first period at the Bell Centre, Beaulieu elected to take matters into his own hands, dropping the gloves with the Maple Leafs forward without even thinking twice. It was something the 22-year-old felt compelled to do after seeing his defense partner go down hard behind the Canadiens’ net in their 2-1 shootout win on Valentine’s Day.
“It was a tough play. The puck was in a weird spot. It kind of stuck on the wall. I didn’t like the hit, so I was just the guy there. Anyone on this team would’ve done the same thing. I was just the guy in the position to do something,” offered Beaulieu, who was given 17 penalty minutes on the play, including a fighting major, an instigator penalty, and a 10-minute misconduct. “In this locker room, we take care of each other. There’s a little special bond between me and Gonch. He’s taken care of me since I’ve been up, so it was good that I could do that for him. He’s been so good to me so far.”
It’s safe to say Beaulieu’s teammates appreciated the young gun’s gesture. With just 63 games of regular season experience, it’s looking more and more like the Strathroy, ON native is steadily growing in confidence on the Canadiens’ back end and playing well beyond his years. And, not only did Beaulieu flex his muscles with his fists on Saturday night, he also was one of three Habs to dish out four hits during a rather physical affair.
“He did a great job. It says a lot when a young guy who hasn’t played that much in the league comes up and commands that type of respect from his teammates. It’s going to really help him in his career,” praised P.K. Subban, who took partial credit for Beaulieu’s impressive fighting skills, mentioning that he’d spent some time coaching him at practice. “He looked pretty good throwing them out there. He fought a tough guy. We need him on the ice, though. We want him on the ice. He’s a great player. He did a great thing.”
Head coach Michel Therrien was in complete agreement with the Norris Trophy-winning rearguard, lauding Beaulieu’s willingness to go toe-to-toe with a player who has 80 career NHL fights on his resume. That’s in sharp contrast to the two tussles Beaulieu has engaged in since making his NHL debut back in 2012-13, both of which have come this season.
“He did the right thing. He had to do what he did,” stressed Therrien, whose club became the league’s fifth 20-game winner on home ice in 2014-15 on the strength of shootout goals by Alex Galchenyuk and David Desharnais, in addition to a 28-save performance by Carey Price. “You don’t want to see a fight, but in that situation, Nathan earned a lot of respect from his teammates. He did what he was supposed to do. ”
Gonchar never did return to the game after suffering an upper-body injury, and while Beaulieu served his time in the penalty box the Canadiens were down to four defensemen for the better part of the second period. That placed a heavy burden on Therrien’s defense corps, but they still managed to get the job done while logging massive minutes. Subban led all rearguards on both teams with a career-high 35:21 of playing time, while Andrei Markov finished the night with just under 32 minutes of ice time and seven blocked shots.
“It was demanding for them. They certainly emptied the tank. That’s the way I see it,” mentioned Therrien, whose squad ensured the Maple Leafs remained winless on the road in 2015 with their 36th win of the season. “They were taxed, but on the whole, they responded well in that situation.”
And, like Therrien, the Canadiens’ forwards certainly took notice.
“It’s a lot of ice time for anyone, but especially for those guys. They’re playing in some key situations against top players. It’s tough. Obvisouly, we appreciate the work they did,” offered Brendan Gallagher, who picked up his 99th career NHL point by scoring his 13th goal of the season in the opening frame. “I think the second period may have been a little tough for them with Gonch going down and Beau stepping in for him. It’s something that we have to do. They worked hard and played big minutes for us.”
Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.
Words from the room
The Numbers Game: February 14, 2015