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Penguins' strength up the middle poses a matchup problem for Canadiens

There are few forwards in the NHL who are more adept than Phil Danault in playing a shutdown role and he’s looking forward to a major challenge when the Canadiens face the Pittsburgh Penguins in the qualifying round of the NHL Return to Play tournament.

“I prepare the same way I do for every game,” Danault said during a video conference after the Canadiens practised in Brossard Wednesday. “I play against the big line, that’s my role. I take pride in it. … I know (Sidney) Crosby is a real good two-way player and it’s going to be a challenge I’ll embrace. It’s going to be fun.”

But head coach Claude Julien said it might be difficult to get the most out of Danault’s talent.

For starters, the Penguins have a ton of depth up the middle. It’s easy to say Danault’s job is to stop Crosby, but what do you do about Evgeni Malkin? And it becomes more difficult to get the matchup you want because the Penguins are the home team for the first two games of the best-of-five series and head coach Mike Sullivan has the last line change.

“As much as I’d like to say (Danault’s) going to be in Crosby and Malkin’s face all the time, when you don’t have home-ice advantage, things might become a little tough,” said Julien. “It may not be as easy as it can be. Maybe Mike Sullivan will help us out by putting a line out between the Crosby and Malkin lines and I can double-shift (Danault) but I don’t think he will.”

Julien said he’ll have to rely on some other players to step up, but the reality is there isn’t a lot of depth at centre.

While Danault’s playoff experience consists of six games in 2017, Max Domi — whose participation is in doubt — Jesperi Kotkaniemi and rookies Nick Suzuki and Jake Evans have never been in an NHL playoff game.

“This might be Nick’s opportunity to step in there as a player,” said Julien. “We know how reliable and smart he is as a player, so defensively he might be able to do the job. We don’t know what’s going to happen with Max Domi, so there’s some situations that are going to happen and we need guys to step up in that role. That’s all we an do. We can’t all of a sudden create magic and bring in an experienced guy who would be adequate in that role. We have what we have and we have to make it work.”

Julien has been a huge Danault supporter since the coach returned to Montreal three years ago.

“He was a really young player, in his second or third year, but he was one of those young players with a lot of potential,” said Julien. “When I met with him, he talked about how he really liked Patrice Bergeron’s game and he knew I had coached him. It was easy for me to work with this guy and help him become a really reliable player.

“What I’ve seen in my years here is a guy who, with experience and maturity and time in practice, is getting better all the time, becoming a good two-way player. It’s one thing to say he’s good defensively, but you can’t forget he has been part of the most productive line for our team for a couple of years.”

Shea Weber returned to practice Wednesday after making a only token appearance Tuesday. Two other defencemen, Brett Kulak and Xavier Ouellet, have yet to practice.


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