Desharnais saves his season with Habs

David Desharnais has been in the middle of good things for a long stretch in Montreal. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

It was November. In Columbus. And it wasn’t even the winning goal. Yet. Still, when David Desharnais used his patented fake-shot move to deceive Blue Jackets goalie Curtis McElhinney and put his team ahead in the shootout, Montreal Canadiens players shot up from their bench like it was spring-loaded. Maybe they sensed things were about to change for the most-maligned man on the club.

The tally, which stood up as the game-winner, definitely draws a sharp before-and-after line through Desharnais’ season. The 27-year-old centre had posted a single assist through 17 games, which is why he was a healthy scratch in two of four contests preceding the affair in Columbus. Since then, Desharnais has leveraged his creativity and a long-standing chemistry with close friend Max Pacioretty to notch 43 points in his past 52 games. The goal versus the Jackets is also one of three game-deciding shootout markers for Desharnais, who’s gone more than two games without a point just once since his miserable start.

The production is wonderful, but the undrafted playmaker must know by now he’s always just a short slump away from hearing the same torrent of criticism that’s marked his entire hockey journey. It’s all well-covered ground by now. The only difference is, with each rough patch he endures, Desharnais grows more resilient, which allows him to remain focused on doing in the NHL what he’s done at every level of hockey leading up to the big leagues—pass his way to points.

In both the American Hockey League and NHL, Pacioretty has been the primary benefactor of Desharnais’ dishes. The two have essentially grown up as professional hockey players together, first finding a passer-shooter bond while cutting their teeth with the Hamilton Bulldogs, then establishing themselves as NHLers on the same line with Montreal in 2011-12, when Pacioretty notched a career-high 33 goals and Desharnais potted his best season with 60 points on the strength of 44 assists.

“It’s one of those things that people might not believe, but when you’re on the ice with him and you see how unselfish he is and the plays he makes, everyone always wants to be on his line,” Pacioretty said. “I’ve just been fortunate enough to have been playing with him over the years.”

The skepticism Pacioretty refers to is, of course, largely rooted in Desharnais’ five-foot-seven stature. That, combined with below-average skating, made it pretty easy for NHL teams to pass on him at multiple drafts. Sure, he was putting up big numbers with the Chicoutimi Sagueneens of the QMJHL, but for some hockey people, points in the offence-oriented “Q” should come with a conversation rate to more accurately portray a player’s worth.

But Desharnais did make at least one believer in Chicoutimi. In addition to being an assistant and head coach with the Canadiens from 2005-09, Guy Carbonneau was part of the Sagueneens’ ownership group. He convinced the Habs to give Desharnais a look, which eventually resulted in a two-way contract in 2008. An MVP season in the ECHL gave Desharnais an AHL shot, and by his second season with Hamilton, he was improving his footwork, while putting up numbers that well exceeded a point-per-game rate.

“He’s got great vision,” said Carbonneau.

Last year was Desharnais’ third NHL campaign and, seeing a long-term fit, Habs GM Marc Bergevin inked him to a four-year, $14-million contact extension. That came despite uneven production in the lockout-shortened year, so when Desharnais started this season in a death spiral, acrimony accumulated fast. Knocks from fans and media are one thing, but when newly elected Montreal mayor Denis Corderre tweeted the Habs should give Desharnais a one-way ticket back to the minors, it signaled a whole other level of irrational venting. That’s when the off-ice component of his connection with Pacioretty came up big.

“To have a guy like Max who always believed in him and always wanted to play with him, that definitely helped,” Carbonneau said.

Pacioretty—who endured his own incredible adversity by overcoming a fractured vertebrae three years ago—says, like a give-and-go pass, the support works both ways. November was simply Pacioretty’s turn to pick up a buddy who’s done more than most just to carve out an NHL career.

“There was zero doubt in my mind he would bounce back,” he said. “That’s all he does is prove people wrong.”

Or—in the case of teammates who seem overly exuberant at the site of a shootout goal—prove some of them right.

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