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The play-in series can become Phillip Danault’s breakout opportunity

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The forward has raised his defensive profile, but a series against Pittsburgh can take it to the next level.

NHL: JAN 18 Penguins at Canadiens Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A lot has already been said about the Montreal Canadiens and their run to the Eastern Conference final as the eighth seed in the 2010 playoffs, now over 10 years ago.

Jaroslav Halak and Mike Cammalleri have much of the spotlight from those runs, but players like Dominic Moore, and Hal Gill became cult heroes during the run as well. One player who also made a name for themselves was Tomas Plekanec. Going head-to-head against Sidney Crosby effectively was the chance for him to let everyone know what kind of player he was.

In Montreal, Plekanec was already known as the team’s top defensive centre and capable of leading a top-six offensive line. He had 20 goals in three of his four first seasons heading into the 2009-10 season. In 2009-10, he had his best offensive season to date, reaching 70 points — the most he would get in his career. He was also getting trusted to play the tough minutes. After the regular season, he was 26th in Selke voting, earning four votes and 14 points.

Then the playoffs came around, which raised Plekanec’s profile. The next year, he dropped to 57 points, but his Selke votes jumped to 13 votes and 29 points, good for 13th.

Last year, Phillip Danault finished seventh in Selke voting. The rise of advanced statistics gives players outside of the spotlight a chance to make a name for themselves, but the Selke — perhaps more than any award — is a reputation award. Once you are in the nomination picture, it takes something drastic to get yourself out of that picture.

The series against Penguins, whether it is considered the playoffs or not, is a unique opportunity for Danault. He has been the Canadiens’ best defensive forward for years, and has shown on a game-to-game basis what he can do against the top players on the other team.

He hasn’t had the opportunity to do that in a series with the Canadiens. He played in the 2016-17 six-game loss against the Rangers, but that top defensive role was still in transition from Plekanec to himself. Not only would he get the chance as the top guy with the best-of-five play in series, but he has a chance to do it against Crosby and the Penguins.

The spotlight will be bright. Like Plekanec in 2009-10, the voting will be done before Game 1 even starts. Danault already has a good case. He has been the centre of one of the best possession lines in hockey for two straight seasons. What he, Brendan Gallagher, and Tomas Tatar have done is no longer a fluke.

A series against one of the best players in NHL history, where you will be matched up head-to-head whenever possible, is something that Plekanec used to raise his profile among those outside Montreal. Danault has the same chance to become known as one of the best in the game at what he does.

Teams have a very long time to prepare for this series from a tactics perspective, and a very limited time to get up to speed physically. It will be fascinating how that affects the play when and if it gets underway. If it does, the spotlight will be on Danault and he will have a chance to keep it on him in a way that can help him to cement his status among the best defensive forwards in the NHL.