Coming into training camp, the Montreal Canadiens were adamant that the open spot on defense would be fought for between Jarred Tinordi, Greg Pateryn, and Nathan Beaulieu. However it became obvious incredibly quickly that Beaulieu already had a spot wrapped up in the top-six, and the fight remaining was for the seventh defenseman slot.
Wednesday night, with a rookie-heavy Habs lineup facing an essentially full Chicago Blackhawks lineup, Beaulieu put an exclamation point on his stellar preseason. Beaulieu was given a bit of a trial by fire against the Hawks, with the only veteran defenseman dressed being Alexei Emelin, who has been bumbling his way through preseason, and passed with flying colours. Not only did Beaulieu execute numerous clean zone exits and breakout passes, but he set up the first Habs goal, then scored the game winner with a brilliant rush up the middle of the ice.
Beaulieu is going to start the year playing with Mike Weaver on the third pair, but I don't see any way he ends he season there. Beaulieu is going to push Emelin out of the top two pairings, it's just inevitable. They kid is too good, too fast, too skilled, and too smart, to not be playing 20+ minutes a game by playoff time.
Unfortunately, the battle for the seventh defenseman spot isn't going nearly as well, with Jarred Tinordi and Greg Pateryn fighting it out for who can make the bigger mistakes. Tinordi makes flashier, high reward plays that show a lot of promise, and he's already proven he can play in the NHL, but he's had a brutal preseason, taking penalties by the bucket-load and struggling with plays off the rush.
Pateryn is far less flashy, leading many observers who like hockey to be played a certain way to take a liking to him, but he's spent most of the preseason handling the puck like it's a grenade, and it was his mistake that led to Chicago breaking Carey Price's shutout. However with a bit more game experience, perhaps the inherent nervousness will work it's way out of Pateryn's game, and at 24 years old, he's more suited to spend half the year in the press box than Tinordi is.
The actual game against the Blackhawks is a tough one to evaluate. Outside of Pateryn's big miscue, I don't think any player on the Canadiens stood out as bad, but because it was essentially an AHL team with a couple vets sprinkled in, and a team that wins Stanley Cups on a semi-annual basis, they got curb-stomped when it comes to possession of the puck.
In all honesty, Carey Price was brilliant, and lucky, as was the team, but I can't help but look at the way the youngsters on the Canadiens performed and praise their effort. I mentioned during the game that while they're all skilled all three young forwards still with the Canadiens battling for a roster spot in Jiri Sekac, Sven Andrighetto, and Christian Thomas, have another thing in common; they work their tails off. You watch all three of those guys, and their feet just never stop moving.
You look at things like that, and you wonder if perhaps this is what Marc Bergevin is referring to when he goes on about character all the time. Michael Bournival earned a spot on the roster last year by playing the same way, and players have taken notice.
Going into the game, pretty much everyone expected a loss. I'm guessing Michel Therrien expected a loss. And it's not like the Blackhawks didn't play well, they did. What the 3-1 victory over the Hawks should solidify for everyone is that Carey Price is a difference maker. A lot of pixels have been typed out by statistically inclined analysts talking about how a team can win without elite goaltending, and they can, we've seen it multiple times. However what elite goaltending allows you to do, is compete with teams that have better forwards or better defense, or both, when you're not supposed to.
It's not going to carry you to the cup every year, but it's become obvious that Carey Price is good enough to expand the cup window for the Canadiens. When looking at the Canadiens roster, you can't help but long for perhaps another 30 goal scorer before they're truly an elite team, but with Price between the pipes, in a seven game series, it might not matter.
Looking at recaps from last year, I noticed that often I would talk about a great save by Price, or if he made a mistake, but a lot of times I just didn't mention him at all. Why is that? Because I've just become accustomed to his consistent game-breaking ability. Goalies don't get to go out and dangle around four skaters like P.K. Subban, sometimes they're just there, winning games. Subban is the best player on the Habs, but Price is the foundation of the team. Canadiens fans are so lucky to have him.