BROSSARD, Que. â€” With most of the attention on star defenceman Shea Weber, Jeff Petry is quietly putting together a career season for the Montreal Canadiens.
Just past the half way point in the NHL season, Petry has already put up a career-high eight goals and was only three points short of his personal best of 25 points in a season heading into a game Wednesday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
His previous best was in 2011-12 with the Edmonton Oilers, who sent the then-impending free agent Petry to Montreal for a pair of draft picks at the trade deadline in 2014-15.
“It’s a matter of getting up in the play more,” said Petry, 29, who inked a six-year contract averaging US$5.5 million after helping Montreal to the 2015 Eastern Conference semifinals. “Getting in on the rush and being that fourth man in the attack.”
“It’s a matter of getting pucks through to the net. I’ve found myself before and, even sometimes still, passing up shots when I get the puck at the blueline, looking for my partner, where I’ve got to think shot first and get pucks to the net. Whether it goes in directly or you get a tip or a rebound, it helps generate offence for our team.”
It has been a rebound year for the six-foot-three rearguard, who was limited to 16 points in 51 games last season due to a variety of injuries. And he played through many of those games with a sports hernia.
Back to full health, he has been a stalwart on the right side of Montreal’s second defence pairing behind the top duo of Weber and Alexei Emelin.
“Coming back healthy definitely helps,” he said. “There was a stretch there (last season) where I just wasn’t myself.
“I couldn’t play the style I wanted to. I don’t know if it’s from being rested, because you got that long break for the summer. But for me, it’s just feeling healthy again.”
And he has had extra work since his partner through most of the first 31 games, Andrei Markov, suffered a groin injury on Dec. 17. Markov played a lot of minutes for a 38-year-old, and Petry saw his ice time jump from about 21 minutes per game into the 25 or 26-minute range on many nights.
He had started to get hot even before Markov was hurt as he went on a run of 12 points in a 13-game stretch from Dec. 8 to Jan. 7.
But he and Nathan Beaulieu, who had moved into Markov’s spot, began to struggle in recent games. Coach Michel Therrien has since dropped Beaulieu to the third pairing and moved Mark Barberio in with Petry.
“When you see the chemistry’s not quite there, we tend to change the forwards quicker, but with the defence you want to be more patient and give it time,” said Therrien. “I’d say the last two or three weeks those two guys together were not quite on the same page defensively, and ended up giving up scoring chances, so we just tried to make a switch.
“It’s nothing against Jeff or Nathan. We’re just trying to find balance with our pairings.”
It was a big lift for Barberio, who likes to rush the puck.
“Jeff’s a really smart player,” said Barberio. “He makes good decisions and, defensively, he has a really good stick.
“He kills a lot of plays. It’s easy to play with a guy like him and it makes my job easier because he can move the puck quickly.”
Petry boosted his standing on the team when he played through injury during the team’s dismal 2015-16 campaign, which fell apart after a hot start when goalie Carey Price wrecked a knee in late November.
With Price back healthy and with Weber on board from the off-season trade that sent P.K. Subban to Nashville, the Canadiens lead the Atlantic Division and hope to go far in the playoffs.
With Weber, Petry and Markov, when he returns, they have at least a strong top three. And general manager Marc Bergevin said this week he’d like to add a puck-moving defenceman to the group.
Bill Beacon, The Canadian Press