Put Me In, Coach: Francois Beauchemin Flourishing As Shut-Down Defender

Jon Neely@@iamjonneelyAnalyst INovember 26, 2009

CHICAGO - NOVEMBER 13: Patrick Kane #88 of the Chicago Blackhawks have words with Francois Beauchemin #22 of the Toronto Maple Leafs at the United Center on November 13, 2009 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The stage doesn't get much bigger than CBC's Hockey Night in Canada in Toronto on Saturday night. Add in a matchup against the game's most explosive player, Alexander Ovechkin, and you've got yourself a recipe for a nationally viewed disaster for a struggling team.

It's one thing to be the player a coach asks to have the dubious duty of attempting to shut down Ovechkin.

It's another thing to tell the coach you want to be on the ice every time Ovechkin is; to tell him that you can shut down the league's best player.

A strong statement, indeed, and one that Francois Beauchemin of the Toronto Maple Leafs made last Saturday night prior to their game against the Washington Capitals.

The Leafs were struggling mightily, last place in the Eastern Conference and coming home after a heart-wrenching shootout loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. Not exactly a perfect start coming into a game against the best team in the East.

Before the puck dropped, before the cameras were rolling and the bright lights were shining, and before millions of eyes were focused directly on him, Beauchemin went to coach Ron Wilson and told him that he wanted to go head-to-head against Alex Ovechkin every single shift.

A wish that was granted by the coach, but one that may have been puzzling to fans and media alike had they heard about it before the game.

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Coming into his first season with the Leafs, Beauchemin was regarded as a solid defender capable of shutting down opposing players, with a Stanley Cup ring to prove it. But much has been said about Beauchemin's success largely coming from playing alongside Scott Niedermayer, the future Hall-of-Famer of the Anaheim Ducks.

It didn't start out well for the 29-year-old, either. Through the first 20 games or so, Beauchemin looked out of place while seemingly trying too hard to make plays that Niedermayer himself wouldn't even try.

The criticism came early and often and it looked as if the heat was getting to him. Fans feared the worst; could this be yet another overpaid player not able to perform up to expectations?

It certainly seemed that way, but that all changed Saturday night when Beauchemin decided to not only prove his worth to the team, but do it while attempting to shut down the best player in the league in a nationally televised game.

Ovechkin scored early in the game and it looked to be the same old story for the Leafs, who have repeatedly been unable to stop opposing teams' best players.

Then something strange happened; it was if Ovechkin simply disappeared from the game. Sure, he was on the ice for over 26 minutes and recorded six shots on net, but watching the game you certainly wouldn't know it.

Ovechkin had been struggling—by his standards—coming into the game, and that could have been a reason for the disappearing act, but when you check the tape you'll see that it most certainly wasn't simply an off-game.

Francois Beauchemin was shadowing the Great 8 so tightly you'd think the guy owed him money.

Not only did he keep him from breaking free and getting scoring chances around the net, but he rarely allowed Ovechkin to even gain possession of the puck. An extremely impressive performance by the new Leaf, and one the fans had been waiting for since the season began.

But Beauchemin's shut-down play didn't stop there; next up was the New York Islanders and their wonder kid, John Tavares. The coming-home party for the first overall pick in this year's draft was hoping to impress, coming back to the place where his hockey career began.

But with over 50 friends and family members in the crowd, Tavares did not put on the display they were hoping for. In fact, the kid was essentially invisible for his 17:42 minutes of ice time, thanks to Beauchemin, who kept him in check all night. Tavares had one shot and spent most of his time on the ice in front of the net, as he was swarmed by the new-and-improved Leaf defender.

Then came Monday night in Tampa, against the star-studded cast of the Lightning; the best of which is last year's first overall pick and budding superstar, Steve Stamkos.

Stamkos did register two assists in the game, but was matched stride-for-stride on each of his 28 shifts—by none other than Beauchemin, once again.

Three straight games against three first overall picks all looking to punish a Leafs defense that has been weak all season, and instead it was like stick-handling in a match box thanks to a man who knew he needed to step up his game; and there's no better way to test yourself than against the best players in the NHL.

He averaged over 28 minutes of ice time in those three games and was one of, if not the most integral part of the team's success, and why they secured six of a possible eight points.

It could have failed miserably for Beauchemin and no one would have blinked an eye, because that's how he's been playing all season. But instead, the Quebec native challenged himself to be better and not only has he answered the call, but his teammates seem to be following him.

There are plenty of people who can lead in the dressing room, voice their opinion and say all the right things, but a true leader is one who leads by example every night; no matter who they're up against.

For a man who's name rolls of the tongue like a butterfly fluttering eloquently through the air, Francois Beauchemin has proved in the last three games that he is a legitimate shut-down defender.

It wasn't the coach who demanded him to play better, but the player who demanded better play out of himself. That's what makes a true leader, and that's what this Leafs team needs if their improved play is to continue.

It's now up to the rest of the team to take a look in the mirror, too.

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