MONTREAL – The NHL lockout has given a few members of the Bulldogs a unique opportunity to grow.
If the 2012-13 NHL season had started as scheduled, Blake Geoffrion would have been gearing up for a game against the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday instead of boarding a bus at the crack of dawn for a seven-hour drive from Hamilton to Montreal. While there’s no question the AHL lifestyle – from long bus rides and smaller crowds to playing three games in three nights – is a change of pace, the experience has come with plenty of positives for the 24-year-old winger.
“In a way, it’s kind of a blessing in disguise because I’m actually out playing whereas a lot of other guys are looking for a job or just practicing. Every year is a little different and right now I’m kind of in a role I’ve never been in before,” explained Geoffrion, who leads the Bulldogs with four goals in nine games this season. “It’s so different not being a rookie. I’m looked at to put up a little more offense and I get a little more ice time than in years past. It’s nice to have a little more pressure to bring the offense and be a leader in the dressing room.”
With all the changes that swept through Montreal’s front office this summer, the extra time he’s putting in at practice will also give the Plantation, FL native a leg up when the NHL does eventually return.
“One of the good things is we’re playing the same system here that they’re going to be playing in Montreal so that helps all the guys here,” explained Geoffrion, who is responsible for 20% of the Bulldogs’ goals to date. “It’s a lot more aggressive and a lot more physical this year; taking away time and space and pressuring the puck are huge parts of it. I don’t want to give too much away, though – you’ll see tonight.”
In a normal season, players on two-way contracts tend to keep a watchful eye on what’s going on with the big club in case they get called up. This year, they’re following the NHL for different reasons.
“There are a lot of guys in here who would be invited [to training camp] if that were the case, but I look at [the negotiations] all the time more as a fan because I just miss watching hockey,” admitted Geoffrion of the ongoing CBA discussions. “I miss going home and watching a game on the NHL package and having something to do at night. I want to get back started just like everyone else does.”
In the meantime, one benefit of being the only game in town is not needing to have a travel bag packed by the door at all times “just in case”. After shuttling back and forth between Hamilton and Montreal last year, Aaron Palushaj is taking advantage of his more permanent place in the Bulldogs lineup at the moment.
“That’s the one good thing; you know you’re here for the time being so you can use the time to just keep improving and getting better as a member of the Bulldogs,” admitted Palushaj, whose average ice time has nearly tripled from the 7:33 per game he enjoyed with the Habs last year. “There’s no added pressure like, ‘I have to play well so I can get called up tomorrow’ or anything like that. You go out there and play as hard as you can every night.”
Already a grizzled veteran at age 23, Palushaj has also enjoyed his time helping some of the newest Bulldogs adapt to life in the pros.
“I’m definitely one of the older guys on the team, which is kind of funny at my age, but I don’t feel a sense of veteran leadership in the sense that I’m super old or anything; I like to lead by example,” he mentioned. “And when I talk about ‘young guys’, they’re still 20 or 21 years old so they’re not that young, but it’s still their first year in the league. This is my fourth year playing pro so I think there are some things I can help with in that area.”
With eight years of pro experience under his belt himself, Mike Blunden has also been dishing out as many tips as he has hits this season.
“You’re always helping out and teaching the young guys how to do things in pro hockey, but we have a great group of young guys,” stressed Blunden, who has racked up five points and a team-high 19 penalty minutes in nine games. “They have a great work ethic, great attitude and none of them are cocky; it’s been really fun. We’re a pretty tight team and it’s fun coming to the rink every day.”
Having played 39 games in the NHL last season, Blunden also has some advice for his rookie teammates on how to handle their first taste of Bell Centre hockey.
“It’s going to be loud; I’d tell them just don’t get too high or too low. Don’t let your emotions take over,” he shared. “You’re going to be nervous and excited before the game so just make sure you ride that and don’t get swept up in it. The fans here are great and they bring a lot of energy – use that to your advantage.”
Shauna Denis is a writer for canadiens.com.
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