Dach doesn’t miss a beat in return, shows why he’s crucial to Canadiens’ future

Sam Montembeault made 31 stops on 33 shots and Jonathan Drouin scored a goal upon his return from being benched on Saturday night as the Montreal Canadiens defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-2.

MONTREAL— Kirby Dach was just 20 seconds into his fourth shift, after a five-week absence with a lower-body injury, when he received the puck in the slot, pulled it into the gap between Mikhail Sergachev’s stick and skate and fired it through Andrei Vasilevskiy for the crucial first goal of a game his Montreal Canadiens went on to win 3-2 over the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Everything else the 22-year-old did on this night is a reminder to what extent he could make a difference.

It also made you think about the influence Dach will have in bringing the Canadiens out of their rebuild in the coming years.

“When you look at the potential moving forward,” said Brendan Gallagher, “I think it’s pretty exciting for our group.”

It’s downright tantalizing, with Dach having the profile to offer the Canadiens a dimension they’ve been missing up the middle since Bobby Smith was filling out their uniform in 1990.

From Nick Suzuki’s wing, Dach still played like the dominant centre he’s shown he can be this season, optimizing his 6-foot-4, 212-pound frame to assert his control over the game all over the ice. He was brilliant on the forecheck, menacing on the backcheck, and, as a result, appeared to have the puck on his stick for most of the 20:27 he played, which enabled his line with Suzuki and Rafael Harvey-Pinard to finish plus-2 while matching up against Tampa’s top line of Brandon Hagel, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov at 5-on-5.

“He just wins a lot of battles,” said Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis. “He’s a got a very annoying stick, he’s got great reach, so we win pucks back all the time. He protects the puck really well…I thought he played a great game for us on both sides.”

It was as if Dach hadn’t missed a beat after missing every game the Canadiens had played since Valentine’s Day.

And this didn’t feel like an adrenaline-fueled performance; it felt like a continuance of what we’ve seen since the nine-game mark of the season, when Dach was elevated through the Canadiens’ lineup.

He’s since produced 13 goals and 33 points in 46 games, and it appears as though that’s just scratching the surface of what he’ll be able to do moving forward.

Dach had shown it in bits and pieces in his three years in Chicago, with the Blackhawks, who drafted him third overall in 2019 and eventually traded him last summer to Montreal for the 13th and 66th picks in the 2022 NHL Draft. But he’s finally tapped into what he said has always been a strong sense of self-belief to take his game to a whole other level this season.

“I think just playing with confidence, contributing more and carrying the puck and not really deferring and letting other guys do it,” Dach said. “Just taking on the reigns and believing in myself that I can be a difference maker.”

You can see that on every shift he plays.

In this game, Dach showed it to score his goal in the ninth minute of the first period. But he also showed it as he tracked back hard on Victor Hedman early in the third, helping to the keep the Lightning two goals behind.

Later in the frame, Dach cut off a dangerous rush from Point, made a smart clear out of his zone with two minutes to go, charged up ice and trapped the Lightning into a giveaway in their own end, and then he swallowed up the puck in his feet and killed 15 seconds off the clock protecting it along the wall.

His exhibition of that hunger has been on full display since the beginning of the season—and not just in games, as St. Louis pointed out.

“He’s a competitor,” the coach said before confirming the Canadiens will move Dach back to centre. “I didn’t have him until this year, so I have nothing to compare him to, but what I’m noticing from him is his compete level.

“But it starts in practice, because he wants to win every puck in practice. He wants to own the puck in practice as well, we see it every day. So there’s a lot behind why he’s been successful this year. He’s shown a tremendous amount of growth, and I think it starts far from when the game starts.”

To see that, and to know Suzuki is rounding into an elite centre, is to know the foundation is set for the Canadiens to become competitive in relatively short order.

“I think you look at how Pittsburgh did it for years with Crosby and Malkin,” said Gallagher, who also returned on Tuesday from a lower-body injury that kept him out of play since Jan. 3. “Looking forward, I think they’re going to have to be our 1-2 down the middle, and if they develop the way it looks like they’re developing, that’s when we’ll grow into a dominant team.”

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