BROSSARD - After enjoying a day off following back-to-back wins over the Boston Bruins and Florida Panthers, the Habs got back to work at the Bell Sports Complex prior to their afternoon departure for Columbus.
Following the skate, much of the attention was focused Phillip Danault, who has shown immense growth as he's taken on an ever-increasing role at center for the Canadiens.
There are some impressive stats to back up the claim that Danault is having an exceptional season: he ranks first in the League in shorthanded faceoff wins (99) and third in defensive-zone draws (224), and he leads the Habs with 17 points (6G, 11A) in the last 17 games.
And although his trademark sense of humor may not be measured in stats, it's clearly in top form, too.
"I think Marc Bergevin is a genius," he cracked when asked about the February 2016 trade that brought him to his home province from the Chicago Blackhawks for Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann. "Marc believed in me from the start. He drafted me in Chicago and he brought me to Montreal. I've developed myself the past two years to become the player I am right now. They always pushed me to give my best. I have a great chance in Montreal and I want to really show what I've got."
Video: Phillip Danault on his play of late
Head coach Claude Julien has shown a lot of confidence in the 25-year-old pivot this season, and has been rewarded with some excellent output from the Victoriaville native.
"Phillip is playing some very good hockey. We rely on him a lot and we give him a lot of responsibility," declared the Habs bench boss. "He's headed in the right direction. He's often taking important faceoffs late in the game. He's an extremely useful player."
Julien will have to do without one of his other more reliable forwards, however, after the NHL announced on Wednesday evening that Paul Byron would be suspended for three games for his hit on the Panthers' MacKenzie Weegar on Tuesday. The coach accepted the League's decision, although he would've preferred having his speedy winger back in the lineup sooner rather than later, of course.
"It's hard to criticize these decisions when they concern player safety. I know Paul regrets it and it certainly wasn't his intention," shared Julien. "For sure, I would've liked the suspension to be shorter, but you have to respect the decision and look ahead. We just hope that the same decisions would be taken if that happens to one of our players."
Video: Claude Julien's press conference
Byron had posted a message regretting the hit not long after the decision came out and repeated his feelings to reporters on Thursday. And though he felt his track record would've factored in to the length of the punishment, Byron saw the big picture and was appreciative of the tone the League was trying to set for its players with the suspension.
"I was a little surprised by the severity of it, but if that's the League's way of handling these kinds of hits now, I think it's good," admitted Byron, who has 10 goals for 18 points in 34 games this season. "You need to get rid of them in hockey. Hopefully, it means a safer game for the future for everybody."
Video: Paul Byron on his suspension
Julien agreed that Byron's absence would create an opening for Charles Hudon and Matthew Peca to draw back in, but he would not confirm any lineup decisions other than to say that Carey Price would get the start on Friday against the Blue Jackets in Columbus.
Whatever the coach decides, captain Shea Weber knows the Habs will be in for a tough battle against a streaking team that's currently tied with the Washington Capitals atop the Metropolitan division.
Video: Shea Weber on the Habs' success the past three games
"They play hard. It's going to be a good game. We're going to have to use our speed, but we're going to have win those puck battles. Whether that's getting inside and using our sticks because we're not as big of a team, or whether that's just outwilling them," he concluded. "We have to win those battles and then use our speed when we can."