Beaulieu Finds His Stride

From the Montreal Gazette

John Tavares is in full stride as he circles around the Canadiens net with the puck at the end of his stick.

There’s an opening on goalie Dustin Tokarski’s left side and it looks as though Tavares has just enough time to close the circle and score a wraparound goal.

But with just seconds left in the period Saturday and the New York Islanders threatening to tie the game, defenceman Nathan Beaulieu appears seemingly out of nowhere to save the day. Beaulieu knows the only way Tavares can score is by putting the puck low on the far left side of the Canadiens net.

So he gets on his knees and slides across the crease looking less like a hockey player than James Brown exploding onto stage (you can almost hear him screaming “Waaaah!”).

Crisis averted, the Canadiens went on to win the game 6-4 Saturday at the Bell Centre.

“I don’t even know who James Brown is,” Beaulieu said, not quite grasping my Godfather of Soul comparison. “I know how (Tavares) skates, he gets really low and as soon as he put his stuck down and he was cupping the puck, I knew what he was going to do. He wanted to jam it in, so it was kind of just a desperation play on my part. I slid and fortunately it worked out.”

When he was called up from the minor leagues in December, Beaulieu looked a little out of place on the Canadiens blue line. He’s a defenceman known for taking calculated risks, quickly moving the puck up ice and generating scoring chances. But at the beginning of his latest stint in the National Hockey League, Beaulieu seemed tentative, often keeping his feet planted atop of the offensive zone instead of moving in to help his linemates.

After a few games, Beaulieu began loosening up and once again played to his strengths.

“Before I was just playing to stick around and stay in the lineup,” he said. “Now I know my role on this team and I’m trying to play it. I’m a little more relaxed now.”

Midway through the first, the 22-year-old thrust his shoulder into Islanders forward Michael Grabner as he tried to carry the puck into the Canadiens zone. He delivered the hit with such precision and timing that it derailed Grabner — his body twisted in mid-air. After Beaulieu recovered the puck and relaunched the Canadiens attack, he nearly took Brock Nelson’s head off when he drove his right forearm into it.

That one earned Beaulieu a two-minute penalty, but it was as though he put the entire arena on notice. He may be a gifted player, but Beaulieu also has something of a mean streak to him. During a one-week period in November, Beaulieu fought twice, knocking both his opponents out using the brutality one associates with a honey badger.

 “I’m not naturally a physical guy, but when there’s an opportunity to get a hit, I’ll take it,” Beaulieu said. “My dad taught me to play that way. He wasn’t a big guy, but he was a tough guy, so I have a little bit of that in my blood.”

After getting out of the penalty box, Beaulieu jumped into a play wherein he spotted Max Pacioretty across the offensive zone and sent a perfect pass to the forward’s stick — nearly setting a goal up in the process.

There were good and bad moments throughout the rest of the game. One play saw Beaulieu totally shut down an Islanders’ clearing attempt so that teammate David Desharnais could intercept the puck and create a scoring play. Later, the Islanders potted a goal when the puck slightly deflected off Beaulieu’s skate on what should have been a harmless shot.

There will be mistakes, bad periods, bad games, but for now the question of whether Beaulieu belongs in the NHL seems to be a foolish one. He played more than 20 minutes on Saturday, often looking like he’s a lock on the Canadiens’ second defensive pairing until someone unseats him.

On a team that has one of the oldest blue lines in the NHL, Beaulieu’s presence is refreshing. He plays the new brand of defensive hockey: responsible but always pressing forward, either carrying the puck up ice or quickly moving it to a teammate, and his feet are endlessly in motion.

There was a time not long ago when defencemen could be big and slow — “des gros jambons,” as the French Canadian saying goes. But that breed of defenceman is dying out and making room for players who can be physical, yes, but also keep a frantic pace.

“You’ve seen the game evolve over the past 10 years, you can hold on or clutch and grab guys’ jerseys,” Beaulieu said. “You have to be quick, first on the puck. That’s our motto here, we’re a fast hockey club. I’m fortunate, I fit right into that.”