The Dominique Ducharme Era as head coach of the Montreal Canadiens begins with a decision that will be carefully scrutinized beyond the next 24 hours: he’s giving Carey Price the start against the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday.
Time will tell if it’s the right call.
The numbers lean heavily towards backup Jake Allen, who has a .932 save percentage through seven starts versus Price’s .893. Even the contrast between Allen’s last start (a 36-save masterpiece that gave the Canadiens a point they hadn’t earned in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Ottawa Senators Sunday) and Price’s (a 35-saver on Tuesday, in which he made highlight-reel stops but allowed three crushing goals in a 5-4 shootout loss to the Senators) point to Allen being a safer pick for a team looking to bust a three-game winless streak.
As Allen was running through the starter’s routine with Montreal goaltending coach Stephane Waite at Thursday’s morning skate while Price was getting "maintenance" — Is "maintenance" a nap? A massage? An oil change? This remains as one of hockey’s great mysteries — it looked like Ducharme was leaning his way.
"Carey will be in net tonight," the coach said, with his words curving towards the outside edge of home plate.
It’s a heck of a pitch to a versatile hitter — a high-powered Jets offence capable of producing against any goaltender, let alone one who’s struggled recently. But Ducharme’s decision to throw it says much about his approach to turn around this 2-4-2 skid his Canadiens were on before Wednesday’s news that Claude Julien was removed as head coach and Kirk Muller as associate coach.
Of course, the 47-year-old Joliette, Que., native has tactical changes to implement, but he’s not performing reconstructive surgery in as limited a window as this. He’s had less than a day and not even a full practice to rejig strategies, so if you thought he and new assistant coach Alex Burrows had enough time to dismantle and reassemble the struggling special teams and reinvent the offensive strategy, you might want to adjust your expectations.
But what Ducharme is doing is wiping the slate clean.
"It’s a new start," he said.
He’s right. It’s a new start for the Canadiens. All of them, not just Ducharme.
It’s a new start for Paul Byron, who went from waivers to the taxi squad to the left wing of the fourth line in the last week, to now taking Jake Evans’ place at centre against the Jets. It’s a new start for Artturi Lehkonen, who’s drawing back into the lineup after missing the last two games as a healthy scratch. It’s also a new start for Phillip Danault and Tomas Tatar, who have struggled immensely so far this season but are now being reunited with Brendan Gallagher.
And it’s a new start for a goaltender who desperately needs one.
"I’m not talking about the past," Ducharme said. "I haven’t talked to the guys about the way we started the year or the way we played 10 days ago, five days ago. We’re starting right now and we’re gonna control what we can control. We’ve got to take care of the things that we can have an impact on, and after that, we believe that if we do that we’re going to be looking up at the scoreboard and the results are going to be good for us."
The results being good would be a welcome change for the Canadiens — and for Price.
He hasn’t been given an opportunity to immediately undo a bad one until now. The plan in trading for Allen was to give Price rest over a more demanding and shortened season, and it’s been followed to the letter to this point in time. It’s not an excuse to suggest he hasn’t had the chance to gain anything resembling the regular rhythm he’s accustomed to, with Allen sharing the net and the Canadiens having several lags in their early schedule.
Now Price is getting it, and he must take advantage.
Ducharme putting the puck in the Anahim Lake, B.C., native’s glove for Thursday’s game could play huge in the big picture. It’s the riskier call at this juncture, but one being made with the calculation it will raise the goaltender’s confidence.
And Gallagher says that’s what the coach is trying to give the team immediately in the absence of having the appropriate amount of time to drastically adjust the tactics.
"He’s very confident in what he has to say, and when a coach has confidence in himself it instills confidence in the players," said Gallagher. "He creates a belief and it’s going to work, and I think that’s huge for us. I think it helps players buy into what he’s saying, and then when you buy in and you see results and you see it continue to happen over and over again, that’s where that process comes from."
Ducharme said he addressed his players and stressed to them that he believes in them. Whether he had a personal conversation with Price to re-affirm that point is inconsequential, because giving him the net speaks louder.
"(He’s) like everyone else," said Ducharme. "We want to have a strong start, we want to have a strong game, and for everyone I think it’s the same. I don’t see him being different than the others from that side."