MONTREAL – Alexei Emelin hit his stride in 2012-13.
Arriving from Russia in 2011-12 after having spent the previous seven seasons in the Russian Superleague and KHL, Emelin’s adaptation to North America wasn’t limited to learning the nuances of NHL hockey. New to the culture, language and systems in his first year in Montreal, Emelin slowly made the transition to life as a Hab, picking up seven points in 67 games as a rookie.
One year later, the 27-year-old settled comfortably into his new role flanking fellow countryman Andrei Markov on the Habs blue line, piling up 12 points in just 38 games in 2012-13. Seeing his ice time steadily rise from 17:17 in Year 1 to almost two-and-a-half minutes more this season, Emelin used his increased work load to improve from a minus-18 differential in his debut campaign to a plus-2 in his second NHL season.
“My second year was much easier for me,” admitted Emelin, who led the Canadiens in hits for a second-straight season. “First, because of the experience I was able to pick up and second, because I was feeling better with the language barrier. Those were the main differences between my first year and my second.”
A key cog on the Canadiens’ penalty kill and a devastating physical presence along the blue line, Emelin’s solid sophomore season ended more abruptly than he would have liked. On April 6, the Togliatti native lined up to do something he had previously done 345 times as an NHLer and ended up taking the worst of his hit on Milan Lucic, eventually hobbling off the ice with a torn ACL and MCL.
Despite being sidelined for the remainder of the 2012-13 season and forced to undergo reconstructive surgery in May, Emelin has no intention of altering his punishing brand of hockey when he eventually returns to the lineup in November.
“I don’t think it will be something I’ll change because what happened to me can happen to anyone,” explained Emelin, who dished out 110 hits in 38 games this year. “I will continue playing the same style. It was just bad luck. You can be walking down the street, trip, or run into another person by accident, and suffer a similar injury. It was a hockey play with a bad result.”
Losing the gritty blue-liner for the final 10 games of the season and the playoffs also left a gaping hole on the Canadiens’ back end. After roaring through the first 38 games of the season with a stingy 2.34 goals-against average, the Habs went on to average 3.5 goals-against without the Russian rearguard’s services down the stretch. While fans would love to see Emelin in the lineup on opening night, the young defenseman has no intention of rushing his rehab process.
“I don’t think I need to try to come back early because it’s a really tough injury,” he explained of the prescribed six month recovery period. “I want to come back when I’m completely ready so I can come back sharp. I don’t want to force myself to come back until I’m fully healthy.”
Spending the summer in Montreal with the team’s therapy staff, Emelin already has his daily rehab routine down to a science. When he finally does make his return to the lineup, he’ll be ready to pick up right where he left off: on the upswing.
“For me, it’s very important to progress as an NHL player,” he stressed. “I don’t want to stay in the same place or take a step back. I want to move forward every year and keep getting better.”
Shauna Denis is a writer for canadiens.com. With files from Matt Cudzinowski.
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