Stu Cowan: Canadiens' Michael Pezzetta plays like a pinball wizard

“I think overall you know what you’re going to get from me,” says Habs’ fourth-line winger who ranks ninth in the NHL in hits.

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Sportsnet’s Eric Engels had a funny tweet early this month, writing: “Martin St. Louis likes to say certain players play checkers and certain players play chess. Michael Pezzetta plays pinball.”

Pezzetta said he laughed when he saw the tweet and I asked him after a recent practice how he would describe his own style of play.

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“I just play hard, finish checks,” the 6-foot-1, 217-pound fourth-line winger said. “It’s hard to finish checks if you can’t skate, right? So if you’re a good skater you’re going to be on top of guys and for me it’s try to go stick on puck and then finish through the body. Let them know you’re coming all night and that it’s not going to be an easy game. I think overall you know what you’re going to get from me.”

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Heading into Thursday’s game against the Senators in Ottawa, Pezzetta had 1-7-8 totals in 33 games. Despite being a healthy scratch for 11 games and averaging a team-low 7:41 of ice time, he led the Canadiens in hits with 112 and ranked ninth in the NHL. He has also had four fights.

“I think he gets the crowd going and gets the team going as well when he’s finishing his checks,” teammate Jake Evans said. “I feel he has a shift or two every game — especially in the first period — where he’s hitting everything in sight. I know if I was playing against that I wouldn’t enjoy it very much and I’d be thinking in the back of my head he’s coming. For us, he brings a lot of energy and I know for opposing teams it probably puts certain thoughts in the back of their heads.”

That’s exactly what Pezzetta wants to do every time he gets on the ice. But that’s not easy when you don’t get many shifts.

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“There’s times where you don’t play for a while,” he said. “Let’s say I get my last shift at the seven-minute mark of a period and then there’s an intermission for 20 minutes and you don’t get your next shift until the 10-minute mark of the next period. That’s almost 40 minutes that you’re sitting down. So it’s just staying mentally engaged. For me, that’s talking a lot on the bench, hyping guys up. That keeps me mentally engaged and I know for the bench it brings some energy. That’s what I’m focusing on is just staying in the game so that when I get out there I’m engaged. It’s so easy to kind of space out on the bench when you’re not playing and then all of a sudden it’s your shift and you’re not ready.”

The 25-year-old has beaten the odds just getting to the NHL after being a sixth-round pick (160th overall) at the 2016 NHL Draft. Canadiens GM Kent Hughes signed Pezzetta to his first one-way contract last summer, a two-year deal worth US$1.625 million.

Pezzetta has tried to model his game after players he liked watching, including Milan Lucic, Wayne Simmonds, Tom Wilson and former Canadien Andrew Shaw. He really admires Shaw, who played 10 years in the NHL after being a fifth-round pick (139th overall) by the Chicago Blackhawks at the 2011 NHL Draft.

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“I like guys who didn’t have things the easy way, had to work for everything they got,” Pezzetta said.

“I know I can play the game of hockey,” he added. “I’m not just a guy who runs around. I can actually play.”

Pezzetta takes pride in the fact he has a plus-3 differential this season because he has worked hard on improving his defensive play. He also checks the stats sheet after games to see how many hits he had.

“Sometimes it’s frustrating,” he said. “I’m like: Geez, I had so many hits tonight, then you look on the sheet and I have two. I’m like: Who’s counting these hits?”

Pezzetta doesn’t take for granted the fourth-line role he has with the Canadiens. He likes to sit alone on the bench before games when the Bell Centre is empty and look up at the Stanley Cup banners and the names of all the Hall of Famers on the walls.

“You look at how big the arena is and I’m just grateful every day that I get to put this jersey on and go play in front of 20,000 people,” he said. “When people talk to me about not playing for a couple of games or not playing a lot, I tell them there’s no bad days in the NHL. I get to do what I love.

“We got a great group of guys … it’s amazing,” he added. “Obviously, as a competitor you always want to play more and you’re pushing that envelope, but it’s not something I can control. So I’m just grateful every day that I get to do what I love and that I’m healthy.”

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