There was no shortage of motivation for defenseman Jeff Petry when the Montreal Canadiens visited the Detroit Red Wings in early January.
For starters, it was a homecoming for Petry, who grew up and developed his love of hockey in the suburbs of the Motor City. Petry and his teammates were also hoping to bounce back from a loss the previous evening when the Canadiens disappointed a home crowd at the Bell Centre by falling 1-0 to the Minnesota Wild. The defeat had been particularly tough on Petry. While trying to clear the puck from the Montreal zone, he threw a blind pass up the middle. It ended up on the stick of the Wild’s Mikael Granlund, who fired it home for the game’s only goal.
But this was another night, another game, and Petry redeemed himself by scoring the winning goal in a 3-2 victory over the Red Wings. “It was exciting to get one here in front of my friends and family,” Petry said. “I made a big mistake last night, but I had a quick turnaround where I could park that game and focus on this one.”
There was one person in the crowd who wasn’t surprised that Petry recovered from his mistake. “He’s always been one to let things go,” said Jeff’s father, Dan. “That’s his first goal here. He has scored goals against the Wings before but this is the first one here.”
Petry is known as an offensive defenseman, and he’s well on his way to a third consecutive career-best season in terms of points. But Montreal coach Claude Julien is quick to note that Petry has picked up his defensive play over the past couple years. “When Shea Weber got hurt, we needed Jeff to play a different role, and we needed him to be on the ice longer,” Julien said. “He sacrificed some of his offense because we needed him to be solid on defense.”
For the better part of a year, Petry was forced into a top-pairing role on Montreal’s blueline because Weber was sidelined with a foot injury, which eventually required surgery. It was supposed to be a six-month recovery,but doctors discovered a knee problem which required an additional surgery and added five months to Weber’s recovery time. “I think it helped my game,” said the Petry, 31. “I had to work on my defensive game and I became a more complete player. When Shea came back, it was easy when I went back to the second pairing. There was a little less ice time and I wasn’t playing against the top lines and it gave me a little more freedom to join the rush.”
Petry is one of the players who has benefitted from the system Julien installed this season. While he is known as a defensive coach, Julien has adjusted to the current trend in the NHL and has emphasized speed, a strong forecheck and a quick transition game. The addition of skilled forwards such as Max Domi, Tomas Tatar and rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi has the Canadiens playing a faster pace, and team scoring is up. “The system has something to do with it, and the speed and the pace of play that we’re hoping to get every night are generating more offense,” Petry said. “Being harder on the puck and hounding other teams and forcing them to make mistakes.”
The Canadiens have made it difficult for opposition breakouts because the defensemen are pinching more at the offensive blueline to keep pucks in the zone and also at the red line. Petry said one of the keys to being able to do that is having forwards who can skate fast on the backcheck. “When we’re playing like that, it gives us the freedom to be there for pinches, but we’ve got to always check to make sure that third man’s high, because not every play is ideal,” Petry said. “So it’s got to be a read, but knowing that the forwards are going to work hard to get back helps us with our decisions.”
One other change has been the addition of former NHL defenseman Luke Richardson, who replaced Jean-Jacques Daigneault as the Canadiens’ defensive coach. “He has been really good for us,” Petry said. “I don’t think I’ve heard him yell once this year. He’s very calm, and he’s clear with his message. Just having that composure behind you and knowing you can go out there and play. Mistakes are part of the game, and just knowing that you’re not going to come back to the bench and get an earful, that gives you a little bit more freedom to make plays.” The 6-foot-3, 197-pound Petry also says he feels better since he adopted a new diet. He started working with a nutritionist last year and has eliminated gluten and dairy.
When he was a youngster, Petry played hockey and baseball. His father was a local hero as a key member of Major League Baseball’s Detroit Tigers, who won the World Series in 1984. “I was a first baseman, and I played until I was 16,” Petry said. “My high-school coach wanted me to quit hockey to concentrate on baseball, but I loved hockey more. My father never pushed me, and he was very supportive.”
Petry saw hockey as a path to an education and played three years at Michigan State before signing with Edmonton, which had drafted him in the second round (45th overall) in 2006. The Canadiens acquired him up at the trade deadline in 2015, and what was supposed to be a rental turned into a long-term commitment. Petry was in line to become a UFA, but he fell in love with Montreal and signed a six-year deal worth $33 million.“It was the right fit for me and my family,” said Petry, who lives close to the team practice facility in Brossard, Que., and returns to Detroit during the off-season.
He has two more years remaining on his contract after this season. Given his love of the market, comfort with the coaching staff and blossoming offensive numbers, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Petry ends up keen on signing another extension down the road.