BROSSARD – Alexei Emelin is quickly earning a reputation as one of the hardest hitting defensemen in the NHL.
Emelin arrived at the Canadiens camp in September touted as one of the most physical players in the KHL. While it may have taken him a few months to ease into the North American style of hockey, it’s clear that the more comfortable he becomes, the more impact he continues to bring to each game.
“I love it, I really do. I’m trying to teach him to start smiling after he hammers guys because the whole league is going to start hating him soon,” grinned P.K. Subban of Emelin’s explosive nine-hit performance in Tuesday night’s game – a season high among all Canadiens. “I really appreciate the way he plays; it adds an extra element to our team. If nothing else, it’s just fun to watch him just crush guys out there. You always heard that he’s a physical player but to see him lay out guys the way he’s been doing has been awesome.”
While logging nine hits in a night is notable in itself, it was ferocity of those hits that had Habs fans roaring. The Togliatti, Russia native managed to keep things clean in process, staying out of the box for the entirety of the game, despite it seeming that every one of his punishing hits could be felt even in the highest seats of the Bell Centre.
“He’s a big physical force and it’s tough to come through the middle on a guy like that,” pointed out Brian Gionta of the defenseman who logged an assist on his game-tying goal. “He’s continuing to mature out there as a player, and while he’s still new to a few things in North American hockey, he’s been progressing really well.”
Head coach Jacques Martin has clearly been tracking the 25-year-old’s progress too, and making sure it pays off. Emelin has seen his ice time, that averaged 15:57 and 15:10 in October and November, shoot up to 20:58 so far in December. Tuesday’s tilt against Columbus saw him log 22:26 of action and finish the night with a plus-1 differential.
“Being a goaltender, I try and have a really good relationship with all my defensemen, so personally, I do my best to try and make him feel comfortable and make it as homey as possible so it’s easy for him to play well,” said Carey Price, whose strategy seems to be working. Emelin currently ranks fourth among all NHL defensemen with 75 hits, and first among the league’s rookies.
“If you don’t have your head up when he’s out there, he’s probably going to catch you,” added Price. “He’s a very good open ice hitter and like I said, when he lines somebody up, he usually gets a pretty good piece of them.”
Justin Fragapane is a writer for canadiens.com
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