TORONTO – With the Canadiens roster in flux due to illness, two youngsters freshly recalled from Hamilton will get their best-ever shot at the Big Leagues.
Mere hours after the Montreal Canadiens escaped with a 5-4 overtime victory against the Senators in Ottawa, General Manager Marc Bergevin decided to change the makeup of his team by looking to Hamilton. Indeed, with his NHL club bitten by the flu bug, Bergevin sent for reinforcements from the AHL’s Bulldogs, calling up 21 year-old defenseman Nathan Beaulieu and 23 year-old centerman Joonas Nattinen. One of the two players almost didn’t take the call.
“I actually tried to hang up three times before answering it,” confessed Nattinen, the six-foot-two Finnish-born forward who was drafted by the Habs in 2009. “Finally, I answered and it was the coach. It was a pleasant wake-up call after all, I didn’t mind it.”
“I want to bring speed, size and a good defensive game to the team. Hopefully, I’ll also be able to create some offense,” said Nattinen, a two-way forward capable to shutting down the opposing offensive while generating some scoring chances of his own. He has 11 points in 37 games as a Bulldog this season, and was a big part of his team’s recent surge in the AHL standings. “The last eight games in Hamilton, we won seven. Things are going really well right now. Making the playoffs is a big goal for us, and hopefully the boys can keep it going.”
A rising tide raises all ships, and the Bulldog’s success is also reflected in the improved play of Nathan Beaulieu, the other prospect who now finds himself, once again, a member of the Habs. After recording one assist in five games during his first call-up at the start of the season, the Strathroy, Ontario native is both excited and relived to be once again an NHL player.
“You try to stay current with everything going on, while hoping that something is going to happen. You never know. It was great news for me. I have to take advantage of these kinds of opportunities. This one is really important to me,” emphasized the Habs’ first-round pick in the 2011 Entry Draft. “Things are going really well for the Bulldogs. With team success comes success at the individual level. I have to give a lot of credit to my teammates over there for helping me play well in the past five or six games.”
“I’ve matured a lot since last year. [Last year] I was running around everywhere, and you can’t do that anymore once you are out of juniors. I made adjustments and feel like I can compete at a higher level now,” offered Beaulieu, who has three points in 11 career NHL games dating back to 2012-13. “It’s frustrating. You think that you’re close to the NHL when you get drafted, but it’s a long process. It hasn’t always been pleasant, but it’s worth the wait.”
For his part, coach Michel Therrien has full intention of giving the two players a chance to prove themselves.
“We wanted to give certain players a chance to show what they can do. In Beaulieu’s case, he’s a defenseman who skates well and who plays a good transition game. Those are things we have emphasized with our team recently, so he can help us in that regard. Nattinen is an imposing guy, a centerman who has been playing well in the AHL. He’ll allow us to play a bigger game. His defensive skills will be an asset as well,” the Canadiens head coach noted, while confirming that both played will be in the lineup against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday. It will be the twelfth game of Beaulieu’s NHL career, while teammate Nattinen will have a chance to make his debut in one of the league’s biggest markets.
“It feels amazing, it hasn’t sunk in yet but it’s always been a dream to play in this league. I’m so close now,” enthused Nattinen, who battled injuries and inconsistency since arriving in North America in 2011.”It was a hard road to get here, with the injuries, but it’s made me the player and person I am now. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the whole thing, but I’m loving it.”
Jack Han is a writer for canadiens.com.