Canadiens’ Ducharme begins establishing meritocracy in loss to Bruins

Brad Marchand had a hat trick as the Boston Bruins defeated the Montreal Canadiens 5-1.

Three days before hobbling off the ice in the first period of his first game back from an extended layoff, Jake Allen spelled out what the rest of this Montreal Canadiens season is really about.

The 31-year-old goaltender, who suffered a lower-body injury after surrendering two goals to Brad Marchand in 15 seconds of Montreal’s 5-1 loss to the Boston Bruins on Wednesday, said, “Win or loss doesn’t matter at this point,” and did so to punctuate the refreshing, reality-based, honest and proper take that the Canadiens needed to focus their energy on re-establishing good habits and building an attitude and identity that will resonate beyond just this season. And while it was exceptionally rare, if not unheard of, to have a player say as much with 48 games to play, Allen had earned the right.

He has been a good soldier all season. With Carey Price absent, with the worst goal support in the NHL in front of him, he’s taken all the shots and pushed more of them away than anyone could reasonably expect him to. He’s shown up every day and done his job without complaint, conducting himself like a true professional, consistently exerting himself to the max and acting the part of a Stanley Cup-winning role model.

If the comments Allen made had come from someone else, they may have been seen as a towel toss to the canvas. But they meant something coming from him because his dedication has been beyond reproach.

Wednesday’s game was no exception. On Marchand’s first goal of the game, Allen stretched and clearly tweaked something in his attempt to stop the puck. He winced, was slow to get back to his feet, but tried to keep battling.

When Marchand scored seconds later, after Allen’s injury clearly hindered his movement, the goaltender realized he might be hurting the Canadiens more by trying to tough it out. After discussing it with trainer Graham Rynbend by the bench, he pulled himself out of the game.

It was a team-first move from a guy who added to his thoughts on Sunday by emphatically making the point it was time for the Canadiens, even from the basement of the NHL, to rediscover the blue-collar character that bonded them as a team on their run to last year’s Cup final.

Allen didn’t say what he did because he was under some illusion successfully pulling that off would lead to some miraculous turnaround and a playoff berth. He said it because he believes it’ll offer key pillars of the future Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield, Alex Romanov and Cayden Primeau (among others) the best possible environment to continue their development.

His comments were pointed at the veterans of the team, some of whom didn’t need to hear them.

Others did.

Joel Armia is one who did.

The talented Finn has been given every opportunity by Dominique Ducharme to turn into the player everyone wants him to be, and he was given yet another one in Boston on Wednesday.

Lined up with Christian Dvorak and Jonathan Drouin on one of two all-NHL trios the Canadiens dressed, this was a chance for Armia to undo some of the bad habits that have ruled his game since the season started.

What did he do with it? Nothing good.

“Tonight,” Ducharme said, “I don’t think he had his best game.”

The six-foot-three, 218-pound winger, who came into it with one goal and five points in 30 contests this season, was given 19 shifts, a total of 13:29 and 1:21 on the power play. Armia, who signed a four-year, $13.6-million contract during the off-season, responded with zero shot attempts in the game.

He was on the ice for two of Boston’s four even-strength goals, and he was also at the heart of the most lacklustre sequence of the night for anyone in a Canadiens uniform.

The score was 3-0 Boston before Marchand potted the shorthanded goal that gave him a hat trick, and Armia could’ve been there to stop him. Never mind that Marchand interfered with him in the neutral zone, because Armia still had the time to get back into position. Instead, he pulled up on the play. The game was within reach before that happened, but completely out of it after.

And something really important followed. Armia’s power play opportunity was snatched away and given to a player who was actually doing exactly what Allen was talking about the other day.

Ducharme’s decision to give Michael Pezzetta Armia’s spot might have been the most important decision he’s made all season, because if the Canadiens are going to do what Allen rightly said they should, the coach needs to establish a meritocracy.

What seems clear is that he now has the authority to do it.

“He deserved more than others,” Ducharme said of Pezzetta. “Eventually, as more players return—I’m hoping we don’t lose others—it’s going to be a competition to be on the ice and have a role here.”

Pezzetta took an early lead in that competition.

He has unheralded skill, but not enough of it to skate by on anything less than 100 per-cent output. And the 23-year-old’s recognition of that earned him that power play time.

It earned Pezzetta seven shifts in the third period, and it earned him even more respect from a room full of people already pulling for him to succeed.

“That’s what I’m here for,” he said. “Every shift, I have to play 100 per cent. Never know what tomorrow’s going to bring, especially if you’re someone like me, and it’s just like every day is a tryout for me. So, for me, I just try to go out there and bring a 100 per cent. I can’t control some things, but I know I can control how hard I work and how much heart I play with, and I never want anyone to question that. So, for me it’s just come out, bring that intensity, bring that heart, bring that fire and we’ll see what happens from here.”

Someone like me.

Someone who knows Tyler Toffoli, Josh Anderson, Brendan Gallagher and Paul Byron are all coming off the injured reserve list soon enough. Someone who noticed the Canadiens claimed Rem Pitlick off waivers before the game. Someone who sees how hard Lukas Vejdemo and Laurent Dauphin are working to challenge him for a regular spot.

Pezzetta is someone who, after scoring his first NHL goal against these same Bruins, had a chance to tell every one of his doubters they never should have bet against him.

When asked to explain his “someone like me” qualifier on Wednesday, Pezzetta said, “I’m a young guy.”

“Obviously, I started in the AHL this year and I’m battling to be a part of the Montreal Canadiens every single day,” he continued. “I want to be on this team, I want to be in the NHL, so there’s no easy days for me. There’s obviously new guys coming in. There’s guys coming back from injury. And I want to play on this team, so I’m trying to do everything I can.”

That’s what the rest of this season is about, as Allen described it.

Armia had better recognize it in a hurry. And he’s not the only one.

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