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Micro Analysis: Phillip Danault’s consistent effort earned a rare moment in the spotlight

With his reliable effort often overlooked, the Habs’ top-line centre had a secondary assist that was one of the best plays in last night’s win.

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Penguins have been playing a more intense shutdown game while dealng with multiple injuries. It’s the way to win when you lose some big talent, chiefly Sidney Crosby.

But the Penguins forgot something. This kind of tightly played contest is Phillip Danault’s playground. He’s not afraid of a little grease. He plays at his best in the tight areas of the ice, slipping in and out of traffic to win the puck for himself and feed it to teammates.

We don’t often sing his praises for these performances. Eyes are usually drawn to his linemates, to the net-front presence of Brendan Gallagher, to the always-moving Tomas Tatar, or to the defence pairing complementing their rushes and helping to cycle the puck. But if you take time to really look at Danault, you’re always impressed by his ability to consistently stress the opposition.

This isn’t one of Danault’s prettiest plays of the season, but the first goal the Montreal Canadiens scored last night doesn’t happen without his effort — or should I say, second, third, and fourth effort? His stick hit the puck away from two opponents trying to rush the other way, before slamming it back to Gallagher and Tatar to create a two-on-oh.

Danault makes stops by being in the right position. In the defensive clip below, he immediately goes to shadow Evgeni Malkin upon entering the defensive zone. He switches to F1 and keeps a defensive posture, staying between his man and the net as the play descends in the zone.

His presence in the slot deters all opposing access to it. He forces a shot from a bad angle, picks up the loose puck, protects it with one arm, and sends it up to Gallagher with the other for the breakout.

He uses every tool he has to take the puck back when it escapes his team. He will slam his body on the boards to seal the wall and stop opposing board passes, or extend the reach of his stick as far as it goes, and then a bit further, to get it on the puck.

He understands that defence is not desperation — until it is.

Sometimes you get outnumbered and then you just have to get your stick on the puck as best as you can. In this backcheck late in the second period, he strips a first attacker of the puck, but it unfortunately bounces to a second one in the slot. It’s nothing a diving pokecheck can’t take care of.

Danault made this stop after leaving much of his energy in the offensive zone, battling on the forecheck and then in front of the net for inside positioning. But his motor didn’t slow down. After falling, he readjusted his helmet and jumped back on his feet. A little push forward from Tatar — as if he said, “go do your work, Phil” — and the centreman was sprinting back in time to thwart any opposing scoring chance.

Defence is offence. No player on the team better exemplifies this than Danault. He has been regularly picking up points since the start of the season, producing at above a 60-point pace, which would give him the best total of his career.

The centreman has become something all coaches love: a known quantity. He doesn’t shine as bright against every opponent (some stylistic matchups are better for him) but even if he slips into the background, you know what you get from him every night: disruptive, sustained, and extensive pressure that shapes opposing turnovers into golden scoring chances.