How quickly NHL seasons go by!
It seems like just yesterday that discussions were swirling about Ryan White making the Montreal Canadiens lineup out of training camp. That and questions about whether Carey Price was ready to handle the No.1 goaltender's job.
But 82 games and about nine months later, the 2010-2011 NHL regular season has come and gone. And like any season, this one had no shortage of storylines and surprises for the Montreal Canadiens. From the early losses of Andrei Markov then Josh Gorges, to the well documented scoring woes of Scott Gomez, there was no shortage of discussion topics.
Aside from the emergence of Carey Price as a bonafide No.1 goaltender, however, I think the biggest surprise has been the play of Mathieu Darche.
And what a big surprise that was!
As we wait for the Habs' first round matchup against the Bruins on Thursday, I thought I'd take a look at Darche's ascension this season and what it means for the playoffs.
The most notable trade GM Pierre Gauthier made last season was to acquire Dominic Moore from the Florida Panthers for a second round draft pick.
Moore went on to play some inspired hockey for the Habs, putting up 11 points (2G, 9A) in 21 games as well as playing a key role in the playoffs. In a lot of ways, he sparked the Habs dormant bottom-six to life, giving them some desperately needed secondary scoring.
Needless to say, when the season was over and Moore's contract was up, it was more than a little surprising that Gauthier decided to let him walk. I mean a second round draft pick is nothing to sneeze at, not to mention that Moore made the Habs a better team.
Going in another direction, and to the shock of many, Gauthier instead signed Mathieu Darche for another year on a one-way deal. This meant that he would get paid the same amount whether he played in Montreal or Hamilton.
I, like many, was not a fan of this signing and felt that Moore, while more expensive, was a faster, younger, more skilled version of Darche. In addition, with a player like White in the minors, the Canadiens didn't need to keep a roster spot for the aged journeyman.
Darche was at the time and continues to be an honest, hardworking player, but with so many younger options why would Gauthier opt to keep him? Especially on a one-way deal?
It made no sense.
After all, Darche only played 29 games last season, putting up 10 points (5G, 5A).
So after much hand wringing and hair pulling by fans and media alike, the season started with Mathieu Darche in the lineup. Just like in the previous season, Darche never complained about his ice time, the way he was used on the ice, the role he was given and even if he played or not.
Tom Pyatt is another player who had a great season last year, and big things were expected from him out of training camp. But when he faltered early in the season Darche stepped into his spot on a permanent basis.
Moreover, as the season went on, Darche, who's been around the block a few times, saw that the Habs were seriously lacking in the net-presence department. As such, and with the guidance of the coaching staff, he took it upon himself to try and fill that void.
Until Max Pacioretty was called up from the Bulldogs later in the season, the Canadiens were a team filled with perimeter players. But Darche changed all of that.
Slowly but steadily, he made a conscious decision to always be going to the net. Moreover, he started parking himself in front of opposing goaltenders every time he was in the offensive zone.
The result was some long-awaited net-presence as Darche started cashing in with goals, deflections and assists all generated from the crease area. Darche's strong play earned him time on the power play where he simply and effectively parked himself on the lip of the crease. All of a sudden, a player who had never had more than seven goals and 22 points, starting contributing on the scoreboard on a semi-regular basis.
Despite his success, Darche continued to play in the bottom-six for most of the season. That is until March 8, 2011. That was the day the Canadiens played Boston and Zdeno Chara checked Max Pacioretty into the stanchion, ending his season.
At the time, Pacioretty was the hottest player on the team, registering 17 points in a 20-game span. In addition, he was constantly going to and crashing the net, while doing a great job of screening opposing goalies.
During an overlapping time span, Darche injured his groin and was out of the lineup (from mid-February till late March). When he returned near the end of March, Jacques Martin, lacking a bonafide top-six player to play alongside Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta, put Darche on their wing.
The result was instant success and chemistry.
Darche's gritty, hardworking style allowed him to dig pucks out of corners for his faster, more skilled linemates. In addition, with his "head to the net" mentality, the smaller Gionta and Gomez were able to more effectively weave their magic.
As a result, when you look at Darche's stats for the year you'll see career highs for both goals and points, with 12 and 26 respectively.
I know it sounds crazy, right? Mathieu Darche a key cog for the Habs? Yet at 6'1" and 215 lbs, Darche has the size to get the job done and has been doing so for a month. Moreover, he is one of the only players willing to go to the net on a regular basis.
As it stands, Darche is penciled in on the second line with Gionta and Gomez for the start of the playoffs. And Montreal will need him at his best to keep that line from disappearing and the Habs from fading fast.
After Pacioretty went down for the season and before Darche was placed on their line, Gionta and Gomez were both firing blanks. In recent weeks, however, they seem to have come to life and are once again putting up points. Gomez has three assists in the last six games while Gionta has five points (3G, 2A) in his last four.
While Gomez's three assists don't sound like much, they are a three-fold improvement over his previous six games where he had only one. Hey, you've got to start somewhere!
As for Darche, he has five points (3G, 2A) over six games and continues to be the spark plug for that line. At the end of the day, Darche is as unlikely a player as any to be playing a key role for the Canadiens. But now that he's in that spot, he'll have to continue to impress if Montreal is going to overcome the significant obstacle that is the Boston Bruins.
The Canadiens need consistent scoring from their top two lines and Darche is the key to line No.2.
Right now, the worst thing for Montreal would be if he suddenly goes into the tank and they have to use, say, Travis Moen in his place. Sorry, but I've seen that movie before and don't much like the way it ends.
Darche has certainly earned himself a new contract for next season, but now is time for him to show what he can do in the playoffs. He has the character and work ethic to get it done and while he is certainly not a long-term solution, he's the best the Habs can hope for right now.
Unless, of course, Benoit Pouliot decides to sudden start playing up to his potential.
In a season of twists and turns, none could be more unexpected than the role Darche has taken on and succeeded at playing. But can he do it in the playoffs?
I've seen bigger surprises.
Kamal is a freelance Habs writer, Senior Writer/Editor-in-Chief of HabsAddict.com, Montreal Canadiens Blogger on Hockeybuzz.com and Habs writer on TheFranchise.ca. Kamal is also a weekly contributor to the Sunday Shinny on The Team 990 (AM 990) every Sunday from 8 - 9 AM. Listen live at http://www.team990.com/