MONTREAL – The first time the Capitals faced the Montreal Canadiens this season, Mathieu Perreault was a frustrated young man.
He had averaged less than 5 minutes of ice time in his first two games and despite signing a two-year contract extension over the summer, had told two French-language newspapers, “Trade me if I’m not part of your plans.”
“Everybody wants to play and I wasn’t playing,” Perreault said as he prepares to face the Canadiens Saturday night near his hometown of Drummondville. “Nobody would be happy they’re not playing. Now that I’ve had a chance to show what I can do I’m very happy.”
After being made a healthy scratch in six of the Capitals’ first 11 games, Perreault has emerged as a valuable third-line center behind Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Ribeiro, centering a line of Jason Chimera and Eric Fehr.
He’s also seen his ice time increase to between 13 and 14 minutes a night while being asked to check some of the NHL’s top-scoring lines.
Why has Adam Oates entrusted Perreault with more ice time?
“You know what? I think his compete level has been very different,” Oates said. “One of the things I’ve tried to stress to him and a lot of guys is that it’s not about points. It really isn’t.
“You’ve got to focus on playing and if you play well you’ll get points. It’s hard because he’s been regarded as a guy who’s been in and out of the lineup and people expect a spark offensively.
“I don’t think that works anymore. You’ve got to be able to play. He’s a good hockey player and he’s shown he can play two ends of the rink and because of that you get more minutes, you get rewarded more and his line is doing a very good job.”
Through 35 games, Perreault, 25, has five goals and 10 assists, six penalty minutes and is a plus-6. Assuming he played every game over an 82-game season, that would amount to 12 goals and 23 assists. Last season Perreault had 16 goals and 14 assists in 64 games.
But with his third coach in 14 months, Perreault had to prove himself worthy of getting playing time in the NHL.
“As a new coach coming in, [Oates] knew the big guys, but the little guys not as much,” Perreault said. “I had to show him what I could do. It took a while but he spent a lot of time giving me tips.”
Oates worked with Perreault on faceoffs, encouraging him to use his small size [an exaggerated 5-foot-10, 185 pounds] to gain leverage under taller opponents. He also talked to him about getting into better position in the defensive zone so that he didn’t waste energy tracking down loose pucks.
As Perreault made improvements in the defensive zone Oates increased his responsibilities, putting him on the ice against highly-skilled forwards like Steven Stamkos and John Tavares.
“That’s’ a position I’ve never been in before and it shows the trust he has in me,” Perreault said.
Before coming to the NHL Perreault had always been one of his team’s top offensive players, piling up 233 points in his final two seasons in the Quebec League. Oates said that production might have helped Perreault get drafted but it’s not what will keep him in the NHL.
“At every level you’re at, until you get to the NHL, you’re the best player on your team your whole life,” Oates said. “Probably because he was a smaller guy he was in and out of the lineup and [coaches were] looking for a spark. Obviously, he has that capability, but I need him to play. That’s more important to me than points.”
Moving forward: The Caps are scheduled to practice at 1 p.m. today at the Bell Centre, where they’ll know more about the availability of Nicklas Backstrom who was struck in the left arm by a Mike Green slap shot late in Thursday night’s loss in Ottawa.
The Caps saw their four-point lead over the Winnipeg Jets cut in half on Thursday night but with four games remaining and the Southeast Division still up for grabs, Oates said it’s important for his players to turn the page.
“We treat every game the same,” he said after Thursday night’s loss snapped an eight-game win streak. “I’m sure the guys aren’t happy. We’ll sit on it overnight and talk about it [Friday] and try to get better.”
Goaltender Braden Holtby said the loss to the Senators gives them added incentive or when they play again next Thursday night.
“If you win you feel confident,” he said. “If you lose you’re bitter and you want revenge. We have to make sure we’re better next time.”