MONTREAL — It’s a win Dominique Ducharme will never forget, with his Montreal Canadiens snapping a five-game losing streak and offering a performance that had his fingerprints all over it.
His first win as an NHL coach. For his Montreal Canadiens.
Think about that.
Ducharme, the 47-year-old from Joliette — a Quebec town of fewer than 20,000 people — under the bright lights of the Bell Centre as coach of the most storied franchise in the league, celebrating this accomplishment, thinking of his late father and his mother, of his brother, of his children, of all the people he met along his playing and coaching career, of which there are too many to thank, he said.
“To be having my first NHL win is something,” Ducharme added after Jonathan Drouin picked up the game puck and Shea Weber handed it to him following Montreal’s 3-1 win Tuesday. “To have it with this team — the Canadiens — is even more special to me.”
Never mind that it came against the Ottawa Senators, who came into the game as the last-placed team in the North Division. Forget about the fact that the Senators had played the Calgary Flames while the Canadiens were cooling their heels at home on Monday.
D.J.’s Smith’s blue-collar crew worked themselves to the bone — just as they had to collect three wins in four previous games against the Canadiens this season — and they were full value on Tuesday.
“They work hard and they work well,” Ducharme said. “They have details in their game that makes games difficult for their opponents.”
But the Canadiens responded to that with their most complete game in a month, with four lines fighting for every inch of ice, with six defencemen closing off space, with the struggling power play finally asserting itself, with the even more troubled penalty kill suffocating its opponents and with one goaltender stopping nearly every shot he faced.
About Carey Price: we’re assuming we weren’t the only ones in Quebec who were surprised to see Ducharme put the puck in his glove for this game. The 33-year-old had been a shell of himself in his last outing — a 6-3 loss to the Winnipeg Jets last Thursday — and it seemed probable he’d be given a couple more days to keep working out the kinks while Jake Allen took his .929 save percentage to Montreal’s net.
But Allen had lost a 2-1 overtime decision to the Jets on Saturday (albeit in a game Ducharme said the Canadiens deserved a better fate) and surely there was a calculation made it might have hurt Price more than helped him to sit him after an Allen loss.
The coach watched Price practise Friday, Saturday and Monday, he watched the individual work Price did with goaltending coach Stephane Waite and he had to have taken note of his engagement in the video room and the gym, and then he came to the podium Tuesday morning and announced the Anahim Lake, B.C., native was getting the nod.
“I’m grateful,” Price said after making 26 saves. “It’s an opportunity that I’m thankful for, and I’m happy that it turned out the way it did.”
We watched him closely, tried to note all the big saves, but it was the little ones that stood out. The ones he routinely makes when his game is right. The ones that would be hard for someone else but typically look easy for him. The ones he’s built his rep on over the majority of his time in the NHL.
Price was beat by a post-dinger from Artem Zub, a wide-open shot from inside the right circle. This was no game-killer, but a good shot he shrugged off and forgot quickly.
Ducharme showed Price confidence and Price took it in and ended up rewarding his coach for it.
Ducharme showed Phillip Danault confidence after the centre struggled coming into the game and even struggled through the first bit of it — particularly in the faceoff circle. But Danault pulled back 10 of 16 draws in the end, including two huge ones in the final four minutes, with the Canadiens clinging to the 2-1 lead that power-play goals for Brendan Gallagher and Jeff Petry helped them secure.
Ducharme said he pulled Paul Byron, Jake Evans, Artturi Lehkonen and Danault aside and told them the penalty kill belongs to them, that he’d lean on Nick Suzuki, Toffoli and Joel Armia to help here and there, but that they’d need to own this aspect of the game.
“I want all my players to feel important,” Ducharme said. “When someone is involved with whatever the job is, if he feels like he’s got an impact into the game or in his job, he’s going to perform better.”
One has to wonder what he told Jesperi Kotkaniemi over the last few days, because the 20-year-old, who had been alright but not quite on the level we saw from him in the August playoffs, was the best version of himself — a confident, assertive and fast player who made everyone around him better in this one, even if he only played 12:50.
The kid, who played 1:36 of the 2:39 the Canadiens had on the power play, has enjoyed his short time under Ducharme.
“I like it,” Kotkaniemi said. “I like it a lot.”
You can tell he’s not the only one with the way the Canadiens have built on things since Ducharme took over. The coach wanted to see speed and puck support all over the ice, much like he saw on Saturday vs. Winnipeg, and he wanted to see yet another step forward taken against Ottawa.
“We want to be in your face,” Gallagher said of the style that’s been implemented.
He conceded there’s plenty of room for growth. As did Price.
“Happy, not satisfied,” Price said, borrowing a common phrase from Ducharme’s predecessor, Claude Julien, who was relieved of his duties last Wednesday following Montreal’s third consecutive loss and its sixth loss in eight games.
Still, the penalty kill took a huge step and found something it hadn’t had since the early portion of the season when it shot out of the gate with seven short-handed goals.
“Everybody was working in unison and executing really well,” said Price. “We just did a great job of eliminating plays and closing seams. I thought everything that we wanted to do we accomplished.”
Ditto on the power play, where Kotkaniemi said the puck movement and shooting mentality was essential.
The player movement stood out to these eyes.
“One of the objectives we had was to change our mentality to be more aggressive, more active,” Ducharme said of the man-advantage assistant coach Alex Burrows now presides over. “The guys did a good job of it tonight, and Alex came in and really prepared them well and worked hard with them.”
It paid off and helped earn Ducharme a win he’ll tell his grandchildren about someday.
“Defintely very happy for coach and Burr,” said Price. “They’ve both been working, working really hard, and I’m sure that they’re pretty happy tonight and proud to be in the NHL.”