One year ago, Alexei Emelin was injured late in the season, and the Montreal Canadiens not so coincidentally went into a downward spiral and could not recover. The Habs went 4-6-0 after Emelin was knocked out of the lineup, and were knocked out of the NHL postseason in juice five games.
It was not just their record that was concerning in the absence of Emelin, it was their complete lack of a defensive identity and the fact they allowed 35 goals in the final ten games of the season.
This season however, the opposite appears to be happening, as the Canadiens have been fortunate to have Emelin at the top of his game down the stretch after missing much of the season.
Emelin blew his knee out last season with ten games remaining on the schedule when he attempted a body check on the Boston Bruins power forward Milan Lucic. Canadiens fans do not need to be reminded about the team’s playoff fate with Emelin out of the lineup.
The Russian defenseman would miss the first 20 games of the Canadiens schedule this season after undergoing knee surgery in the summer. Though he performed admirably upon returning to the lineup, it did not last long as the time off and reconstructed knee caught up to him.
In a stretch of 19 games between December 10th and January 25th, Emelin registered a plus minus of minus 17. Plus minus is admittedly not the greatest stat to measure a player’s individual performance in most cases, but when it is that glaringly poor over a lengthy stretch of games, you can conclude he struggled mightily in that time.
Things changed for Emelin when he finally exorcised his demons with Lucic on March 24th. Less than two weeks earlier, Lucic would get the best of Emelin, and the Bruins would come away with a 4-1 win over the Habs. However, in their most recent meeting, Emelin caught Lucic early in the game with a beautiful hip check, and his game took off immediately.
Bruins captain Zdeno Chara retaliated to the hit and took an interference penalty, and the Canadiens responded with a power play goal by none other than Alexei Emelin on the ensuing power play.
Emelin was clearly playing on a level he hadn’t reached all season in this game against the Bruins, and following yet another check on Lucic, the Bruins winger, out of answers for the Habs rugged defenseman, resorted to cowardly spearing Emelin from behind in the nether region.
Lucic vehemently denied the spear after the game, but must have forgotten NHL games are often on camera these days.
Now, getting speared in the jock area is not often considered a win, but it clearly signaled that Emelin had given Lucic all he could handle on the night, and taken one of the most important Bruins off his game. The Habs would ultimately win the game 2-1 in a shootout, with Emelin being the only Canadien to beat Tuukka Rask in the first 65 minutes of the game.
It was a season changing game for Emelin, who had struggled most of the year after returning from injury.
In the seven games since the contest against the Bruins, Habs fans have begun to see the Emelin of old. The one who wins battles, throws huge hits, and keeps opponents honest just by being on the ice.
I am not saying Emelin is the next Scott Stevens, but he can change an opponent’s plans the same way as the legendary New Jersey Devil just by stepping on the ice. When playing against the Canadiens you can’t help but keep your head up and be more willing to dump the puck in the corner instead of driving to the net.
It is difficult to measure in numbers what Emelin brings to the Habs when he is on top of his game. However, he does have five points in seven games since devastating Lucic with a hip check, a veritable onslaught of points for the defensive defender. He is also a plus five in the same time frame.
One of the most noticeable stats that suggest Emelin has returned to the top of his game is his season high eight hits thrown in the Habs last game against the Detroit Red Wings.
Emelin gave the Wings everything they could handle in the game, catching Pavel Datsyuk with one of the hardest hits the slick Russian have received in his career, and stapling Tomas Jurco to the end boards late in the game as well.
It was a sure sign the Emelin of old has returned, and it could not happen soon enough for the Montreal Canadiens. With the playoffs just around the corner, and the Canadiens notoriously small, the return of a punishing defender is exactly what the team needs heading into the postseason.
Hopefully for the Canadiens, the resurgence of Emelin can reverse their playoff fortunes from a year ago.