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Phillip Danault s emergence helps Canadiens weather injury storm

Phillip Danault s emergence helps Canadiens weather injury storm
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Montreal Canadiens Phillip Danault, left, battles Florida Panthers centre Seth Griffith for the puck during the second period on Dec. 29, 2016, in Sunrise, Fla. Alan Diaz / AP

PITTSBURGH — Head coach Michel Therrien knows that he has to be patient with Phillip Danault.

“He’s a young player and he’s going to have his ups and downs,” Therrien said after the 23-year-old from Victoriaville scored the overtime winner in the Canadiens’ 3-2 win over the Florida Panthers on Thursday night.

Both sides of Danault’s game were on display during the Canadiens’ two-game swing through Florida.

Danault struggled in Tampa on Wednesday as the Lightning rallied from a 3-1 deficit to post a 4-3 overtime win. He won only four of his 15 faceoffs and finished the night with a minus-2 rating.

It was a different story in Sunrise on Thursday. He won 55 per cent of his faceoffs — 11 for 20 — and supplemented his seventh goal of the season by assisting on Brendan Gallagher’s tying goal with 2:37 remaining in the third period.

It’s a small sample, but the trio of Gallagher, Danault and Max Pacioretty appears to have some chemistry. The accepted wisdom is that Danault will move down the depth chart when Alex Galchenyuk recovers from his knee injury, but Danault — who started the season as a winger on the fourth line — could offer Therrien an interesting option on offence.

He could keep the current line together and use Galchenyuk with Alex Radulov and — take your pick — Artturi Lehkonen, Paul Byron or Andrew Shaw.

Danault was acquired from Chicago last season in a deal that saw Montreal give up Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann. It’s interesting to note that, with his seven goals and nine assists, Danault has more points this season than Weise and Fleischnann combined. Weise has two goals and two assists in 32 games with Philadelphia, while Fleischmann has four goals and an assist in 29 games with the Blackhawks.

Montreal Canadiens’ Phillip Danault, left, is congratulated by teammate Max Pacioretty after Danault scored the winning goal against the Florida Panthers in overtime of an NHL hockey game, Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016, in Sunrise, Fla. Alan Diaz / AP

Galchenyuk was the Canadiens’ leading scorer when he was injured on Dec. 4 in Los Angeles and he left a hole in the middle, which became even larger when David Desharnais suffered a similar injury two nights later in St. Louis.

They have held on to the No. 1 spot in the Atlantic Division with 49 points and hold a five-point edge over Ottawa, with Boston another two points back. It’s important for the Canadiens to finish in the top three in the division because it appears likely that the two wild-cards this season will be claimed by teams in the Metropolitan Division. Five of the top seven teams in the Eastern Conference standings are Metropolitan Division teams, headed by the Columbus Blue Jackets, who are on a 14-game winning streak.

While the Canadiens can’t afford to be complacent, they are in a comfortable position. One measuring stick for teams is the number of points they can accumulate in any 10-game segment. If a team can average 12 points for every 10 games, it will finish the season with 96 points and that’s usually good for a post-season berth. The Canadiens are ahead of the curve with 49 points through 36 games.

The Canadiens will fly home after the Pittsburgh game, practise in Montreal on Monday and then go back on the road to play Nashville, Dallas and Toronto. The Nashville game is supposed to be P.K. Subban’s first game against Montreal since he was traded for Shea Weber. Subban has been ruled out of games this weekend with an upper-body injury, but Nashville general manager David Poile said there is a possibility he could play against the Canadiens on Tuesday.

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