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Sparkplug on D

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

MONTREAL – Was Alexei Emelin deliberately trying to send Milan Lucic a message when he delivered a thundering open-ice hit on the Bruins power forward just 2:06 into the Canadiens’ home opener last Thursday night?

“No, no,” insisted the 28-year-old defenseman, who, some 18 months earlier, came out on the wrong side of a hit attempt on Lucic at the Bell Centre, suffering a devastating knee injury that forced him to undergo season-ending surgery and ultimately miss the first six weeks of the 2013-14 campaign. “Playing against Boston isn’t special for me. I treat it like a regular game.”

Emelin lays out Lucic

While that may be the case, Emelin’s coaches and teammates are adamant that the Russian rearguard’s regular contributions in the physicality department – and his ability to rise to the occasion in key moments, no matter the opposition – have been vital to the Canadiens’ cause in more ways than one early on in 2014-15.

“He’s been one of the leaders on the defensive end since the day I got here. The way he plays with no fear and makes those big hits on key players on other teams really gives us a spark. Personally, it really gets me going,” offered Alex Galchenyuk, who, like Andrei Markov, can often be seen communicating with Emelin in his native tongue. “I’m always surprised by Alexei. We’ll be flying on the plane or sitting on the team bus, and I’m constantly asking him how he does it. He enjoys the physical game. It’s a part of his passion. It’s fun to see from the bench. That’s for sure.

“It’s like when someone gets into a fight or gets a big goal. That’s how games are built. They’re built on momentum. Not every game goes well, so you’ve got to hope for that momentum. A good hit can bring that,” added Galchenyuk, who has been a teammate of Emelin’s since breaking into the NHL back in 2012-13. “Alexei can really get the guys fired up, whether it’s the start of the game, the middle or the end. We’re lucky to have him.”

That’s certainly the consensus inside the locker room, as the Habs’ reigning hit champion three-years running has steadily earned the respect of his peers with his remarkable ability to play a predominantly physical, yet relatively clean brand of hockey game in and game out.

“He has to be abrasive. That doesn’t mean fighting. There’s a little sandpaper in his game. That’s really his identity, to be abrasive around the net, and to be abrasive defending the rush – with discipline,” explained assistant coach J.J. Daigneault, who has helped Emelin fine-tune his game since joining the Canadiens’ staff back in June 2012. “That’s just who Emmy is. Good defensive defensemen say – “I’ll be abrasive. I’ll play in your face.” He can set the tempo for a game or generate emotion. That’s Alexei. He’s a great asset to have on your hockey club.”

But, the four-year NHL veteran isn’t only contributing to the Canadiens’ success by throwing his weight around and rattling opponents’ cages. Returning to his natural side this season alongside Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban has afforded the Togliatti native a chance to assert himself both offensively and defensively, showcasing noticeable improvement in both facets of his game.

“I think Emmy benefits from being back at his regular position on the left side on both fronts. He’s been able to get some good shots through from the blue line and our forwards are either tipping or jumping on rebounds. Last season, in order to get some offense from the back side, it was all about his one-timer from Marky. Now, we’re working on him getting the puck to his forehand, fanning out to the wall, and looking for lanes,” offered Daigneault, who believes Emelin’s willingness to learn and ever-growing comfort level in Montreal has played an integral part in his developing into a more complete player. “Defensively, we get the sense that he’s not getting caught flat-footed as often. And, I think pivoting comes more naturally on his left side. He’s quicker on pucks, and he has a very good stick this year, especially around the net. He’s blocking shots. I see him with a fresh start on the left side, and a heightened confidence level.”

Subban senses a change in Emelin in that regard, too, particularly when it comes to the one-time Olympian’s desire to chip in on offense at every opportunity.

“He does it all. I don’t think people give him enough credit for his offense and what he brings to the table. He does bring that offensive flair. He can find guys, shoot the puck, and put the puck on net in good areas. He also does a really good job of moving the puck out of the zone. He should get more credit for it,” stressed Subban, who claims to communicate with Emelin on the ice with a few choice Russian words that he admits to having trouble repeating. “He’s starting to feel a lot more comfortable on the ice. I’m happy that I’m playing with him, and I’m happy that he’s playing well.”

Getting Emelin to the point where he is now, Daigneault recalls, wasn’t always smooth-sailing. The former KHL standout struggled to return to form when he rejoined the Canadiens last November following an operation to repair ACL and MCL tears in his left knee. After registering a minus-12 differential in the 10 games leading up to the Habs’ first game of the new calendar year in Dallas last January, Emelin was a healthy scratch for the tilt in the Lone Star State.

“We did a lot with Emmy last year. I remember a video session in Dallas where I must’ve had 20 clips of things I didn’t like that he was doing. I said – “Digest that, and later on tonight I’ll show you 20 clips of things I really like in your game.” I kind of chunked it in the A.M. and P.M. Then, we went from there. He knew he had to improve and he knew what he had to do,” confided Daigneault, who believes the decision to have Emelin take in the game from the press box was a move that yielded important results in the long run. “He kind of progressed from that point. When you feel that you’re not playing up to par, your confidence slides and the only way to rebuild it is to have success. He had a good training camp. He’s healthy. He’s got one more year under his belt. I like the way he’s playing within our team concept.”

That certainly applies to the manner in which Emelin and Subban have quickly laid the groundwork for a successful partnership that appears to have gelled in short order.

“The two of them have a good passing game and they have a good defensive support game as well. So far, I’m very pleased with the way they support one another and read off one another. They break out well together. There’s been good chemistry thus far,” offered Daigneault, praising the manner in which the pair complements one another rather well. “When they keep things simple, with their passing game, they’re always in good shape.”

With that in mind, it’s safe to say the future looks bright for the rugged defender, who continues to make significant strides with every passing season.

“It hasn’t just been a good start for me,” concluded Emelin, who has put up five points in five games in 2014-15. “I think it’s been a pretty good start for the whole team.”

Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.

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