MONTREAL – Paul Byron has found a way to turn killing penalties into an offensive opportunity.
Picking up his fifth shorthanded point of the campaign after sliding a perfect pass to Torrey Mitchell for the eventual game-winning goal, Byron now sits atop the NHL in points on the PK. Doing some of his best work when the team is down a man, the 26-year-old winger has played a major role in helping the Habs snuff out 84.8 percent of opposing power plays while countering with eight shorthanded markers.
He may have played just 1:21 on the power play this season, but that hasn’t stopped the speedy forward from finding ways to get in on the special teams lamp lighting action in 2015-16.
“[Former Buffalo GM] Darcy Regier once told me in Buffalo that you need a niche to make a spot for yourself in the NHL and I think the PK is definitely my niche,” shared Byron, who spent three seasons in the Sabres organization after being drafted by Buffalo in the sixth round in 2007. “It’s something I excel at. I don’t know what it is – anticipation, being in the lanes, more room out there – I just try to outwork the power play and give up as few chances as possible. With my speed and my quickness, I can kill plays.”
Now sitting one goal shy of setting a new career high after just 30 games played this season, Byron has managed to impress even the team’s most consistent snipers when it comes to his offensive contributions when down a man.
“It doesn’t surprise me. His speed is lethal, not only on the forecheck, but we chip a lot of pucks in to get him into foot races and he’s going to win a lot of those,” explained Max Pacioretty, who is currently leading the Habs in points for a fifth-straight year. “That was a prime example on that goal of putting a puck in an area and letting him take over. With the way we play, I think he’s found his niche here.
“Even at 5-on-5, with our style where we chip pucks and have wingers overload, it’s important to have guys with speed,” added the Canadiens’ captain, who opened the scoring with his 17th goal of the campaign in the first period. “He has a lot of offensive jump on whichever line he plays on. It’s nice to see him stepping up and he’s definitely been rewarded.”
Earning second star honors against the Devils two games after potting a pair of goals at the Winter Classic, Byron seems to have hit his stride in early 2016. He leads all Habs in average shorthanded ice time per game, and, despite his 5-foot-8, 158-pound frame, the Ottawa native is currently sitting fifth on the team in hits.
“Paul Byron isn’t a big guy, but he’s got guts,” praised head coach Michel Therrien. “He has really good vision. He’s got a good stick. With his speed in the neutral zone, he’s able to create a lot of scoring chances. You saw that again tonight; he was very patient and poised with the puck. He made a great play on Mitchell’s goal, which ended up being the game winner. Special teams play an important role.”
Finishing fourth in Molson Cup voting for the month of December behind Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec, and Nathan Beaulieu despite enjoying an average workload of just 12:58 per night, Byron has been quietly adding new members to his growing fan club inside the dressing room and beyond since arriving in Montreal on October 6.
“Everyone wants to doubt you. I could have been in the American League if it wasn’t for a couple of teams passing up on me,” admitted Byron, who was picked up on waivers from the Flames the day before the season opener. “I’m at an age where you either have to show you belong in the NHL full time, or someone’s going to pass you by. I’m just trying to make the most of this opportunity and so far it’s been great.
“I love it here. I love the team, I love the guys, and I love the coaching staff,” added Byron. “All I’m focused on right now is trying to win games and helping the team make the playoffs.”
Shauna Denis is a writer for canadiens.com
Postgame: Jan. 6, 2016
Game Highlights: Canadiens vs Devils
They’re coming home
Number 45 in the 514
One gain, one loss