CHICAGO — It felt like destiny put the knife in Kirby Dach’s hands, and he wielded it to perfection against the team that felt he lacked the killer instinct to do so.
What a delicious storyline: The 21-year-old, drafted third overall and developed for three seasons by the Chicago Blackhawks, back at United Center for the first time since being traded to the Montreal Canadiens, tapped for a chance to win the game in the shootout, skating off to his right, over to his left, and then down the gut, moving the puck from forehand to backhand and back to forehand, shooting it through Arvid Soderblom and into the net, curling over to the boards and responding to the booing crowd in celebration with an I-can’t-hear-you, hand-to-ear, Hulk-Hogan-esque gesture.
Just scrumptious. Revenge, always best served cold, was delivered on ice.
You can’t downplay the feeling of it, and Dach couldn’t even if he tried. The smile on his face, as Queen’s Fat Bottom Girls faded down to a hum in the visiting room and he prepared to face the media, said it all.
“I was excited,” Dach added. “Any time you get to come back to a place you used to play and put on a show like that is pretty good.”
He said all the right things back then—about how he was more thinking about how the Canadiens wanted him than about how the Blue Jackets no longer did—but he acknowledged, after Montreal’s 3-2 win over the Blackhawks, that the sting of being given up on by the team that drafts you always lingers.
Anderson knows it’s especially fresh for Dach, who dealt with a serious injury early in Chicago and struggled through the rest of his time with the Blackhawks to show the promise he held when he was taken as high as he was in the 2019 Draft. He knows what Friday’s game-winning goal meant to him.
“You definitely want to show up on those nights when you’re playing teams that don’t want you and give up on you,” he said just two days after the Canadiens beat the Blue Jackets in Columbus.
Anderson also talked about how thankful the Canadiens are that Chicago moved on from Dach when they did.
“Definitely pretty shocked about the Chicago situation with Kirby, especially with how young he is and how big of a player he is,” he said of the 6-foot-4, 212-pound centre who’s produced most of his 17 points in 21 games with the Canadiens from the wing of the top line. “Such a rare breed. We’re so fortunate we were able to grab him, and he’s been huge for us this year. He’s been very consistent, he’s worked so hard to get his game, and he’s been in the right direction.”
The Blackhawks didn’t see Dach going that way in Chicago, especially after he posted just nine goals and 26 points in 70 games a season ago.
So general manager Kyle Davidson pulled the trigger in July, sending Dach to the Canadiens in a trade bookmarked by ones that sent 40-goal scorer Alex DeBrincat to the Ottawa Senators and a second-round pick to the Toronto Maple Leafs for goaltender Petr Mrazek and a first-round pick to kickstart an aggressive rebuild, and that was that.
The Canadiens may have traded 21-year-old Alex Romanov to the New York Islanders to acquire the first-round pick they sent to Chicago for Dach, but they did it reluctantly, knowing they were dealing from a stocked position—with Kaiden Guhle and Arber Xhekaj among left-handed, rugged defencemen rising quickly through their pipeline.
They did it feeling Dach’s upside was worth that sacrifice — and more — with GM Kent Hughes saying his faith in Montreal’s development model, headed by coach Martin St. Louis, made for a confident bet “he’s going to achieve good things in the Montreal Canadiens organization.”
St. Louis has enabled that to be realized quickly, giving Dach the licence to play unshackled.
“I love my players to play free as much as possible, and Kirby’s doing that right now,” said St. Louis hours before tapping Dach to use his creativity through the entirety of a 4-on-3 power play in overtime and to have the game on his stick in the shootout.
“It shows a lot of confidence in me,” Dach said. “I enjoy that from Marty. That’s something I’ve been working for, and wanting that trust from him, so it was nice to get that.”
It’s not like Dach never had it in Chicago. He was given opportunities to play with world-class players, tested extensively at centre, and fed plenty of ice-time.
But he was a young player navigating the ups and downs that come with being a young player in the league, learning his place and trying to find his rhythm, plagued by a wrist injury at a pivotal point, and he never quite rewarded their faith.
The Blackhawks soured on him. On the day he was traded to Montreal, sources we touched base with for background on the player said members of management were eager to get rid of him.
If any of that got back to Dach — and we suspect if it got to us, it got to him — he wouldn’t directly speak to it after his triumphant moment on Friday.
“Montreal wanted me to be there,” Dach said. “That’s a blessing as a player when you’re wanted and you feel wanted. I’ve just been focused on Montreal and haven’t really thought about too much of not being wanted here.”
It was hard not to think about it during the game, though.
As Chicago Sun Times reporter Ben Pope pointed out to us after it, Dach’s presence wasn’t even acknowledged by the Blackhawks in his return. He made the astute observation that you wouldn’t necessarily expect a video tribute to a player who only played 152 games with the organization, but not even giving a former third-overall pick with that many games under his belt a “Welcome back, Kirby” said much about how management felt about him.
But Dach got the last laugh on this day, and it almost felt scripted—like the Blackhawks tying it up 2-2 on the power play with 3:57 to go in the third period set the stage.
St. Louis had a sense for it. After turning to Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki, as he had in Montreal’s other two shootouts so far this season, he penned Dach into the third spot despite having not used him a shootout beforehand.
“That was dramatic, eh?” the coach said.
Indeed, it was.