MONTREAL - No one saw Phillip Danault coming - not even Danault himself.
A first-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2011, Danault was traded to the Canadiens last February and from the start of this season seemed destined to pivot one of the bottom two lines. Yet he finished the campaign flanked by Max Pacioretty and Alexander Radulov on the first line after collecting 40 points (13G, 27A) in 82 games.
"I wasn't expecting that, it exceeded my expectations," admitted the native of Victoriaville after his second NHL season, which was also his first complete one. "I came a long way. I fought for a spot at the start of the year. The more confidence I gained, the more the team gained confidence in me. It completely exploded, I don't know exactly when."
Video: MTL@WPG: Danault goes coast-to-coast for second goal
In fact, it all started on December 17 in a game against the Washington Capitals. Just a few days after Alex Galchenyuk and David Desharnais went down to injury on that notoriously long California road trip - leaving a gaping hole at center - Michel Therrien decided to insert Danault between his two top scorers, after getting mixed results with Tomas Plekanec in the slot.
Danault clicked with his new wingers immediately. They even gave him the nickname "7 Eleven," after the chain of convenience stores.
"He's always open!" Pacioretty explained jokingly of the moniker.
Pacioretty, Radulov and Danault were pretty much inseparable the rest of the season; asides from a few changes here and there, their line was kept intact. Even when Galchenyuk came back from his injury. Even when Claude Julien took over behind the bench. And even when the "real" season began.
"The fact that I can say that I played with Patch and Radu this season, it wasn't really on my radar at the start of the year. They were really incredible for me," attested the 24-year-old, who finished sixth on the team in points and seventh in goals. "They're two great players who showed me the way."
It goes without saying, then, that Danault would absolutely like to see No. 47 back in a Habs uniform again next year - and for many years after that.
"Yes, I hope he comes back, but not only because he's Radulov. He's a player who works hard," explained Danault. "Yes, he's got some excellent skills, but he brings so much energy and emotion, he's an amazing player for us. You don't find players like him just anywhere."
Video: MTL@FLA: Danault buries breakaway chance in overtime
While Danault was busy heaping praise on his buddy and linemate, the accolades came right back his way, too. The 6-foot-1, 193-pound forward was selected by the Montreal media as the winner of the Jacques Beauchamp trophy, awarded annually to the member of the Canadiens who played a dominant role during the regular season, without earning any particular honor. The fourth star, of sorts.
Used in all kinds of situations - penalty kill, power play, 4-on-4, 3-on-3, important defensive-zone draws - and playing more than 15 minutes per game on average, Danault certainly earned the recognition.
Of the 38 players who put on a Canadiens uniform, he was the only one to dress for all 82 games. He also participated in all six postseason games in his first taste of springtime action.
"It was an unforgettable experience. I'm going to keep it in my toolbox and use it down the road," glowed Danault, who collected two assists in the playoffs. "It was a really great experience for me as a player."
"It would've been even more fun if we had a better finish to the season. We had some bad bounces that cost us the series. But I'm happy with my own progression this year, concluded Danault, "I'm sure that it's going to go even better next season."
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