BROSSARD, Que. – None of the prizes went to journeyman winger Mathieu Darche on Monday but he was on a lot of minds among the Montreal Canadiens.
On the day that Carey Price was officially named the team’s player of the year and defenceman Roman Hamrlik took the unsung hero award, Darche was still basking in his two-goal performance in New Jersey on Saturday that put Montreal on the brink of a playoff spot.
It was the way the 34-year-old did it as much as the goals themselves—going to net and redirecting pucks in the heavy traffic. Most of his teammates have been avoiding the rough going in that area through their late-season 5-7-0 slide.
“At this time of year you don’t score on the perimeter,” Darche said. “Teams defend with five guys.
“If you try to play at the blue-line, especially against a team like Jersey, you get picked off and there’ll be turnovers. It wasn’t pretty, but it’s what’s effective at this time of year.”
Now the Canadiens will be gunning for a third win in four games on Tuesday night when they play host to the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, who hold a one-point lead over Calgary for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
One win in any of their final three games, or one loss by ninth-place Carolina, would clinch a spot in post-season play for the Canadiens, who are sixth in the East and hold the edge in the first tie-breaker—non-shootout wins.
Darche returned for a 7-0 loss in Boston on March 24 after missing 17 of 19 games with a suspected groin injury. After two scoreless games, he has three goals in the last three, including the game-winner in a 3-1 win over Atlanta last week and his second career two-goal game against the Devils.
The Montreal native has helped by going to the net to create traffic, which has benefited veterans Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta. They were searching for an effective left winger after Max Pacioretty went down with a concussion and a fractured neck vertebra from a Zdeno Chara hit on March 8.
“I probably benefit more from them, but what I do is simple: I go to the net,” said Darche. “It’s easier for them, so they can use their skills to make plays.”
Darche turned pro in 2000 after four years at McGill University but played only 28 NHL games over seven seasons in the Columbus, Nashville and San Jose Organizations, spending most of his time with a variety of AHL clubs, plus one season in Germany.
He got to play 73 games for Tampa Bay in 2007-08, picking up seven goals and 15 assists, but spent all of the next season with AHL Portland. He signed with the Canadiens in 2009-10 and split the campaign between AHL Hamilton and Montreal.
Last summer, his persistence was rewarded when Montreal gave him the first one-way NHL contract of his career, even if it was for only US$500,000.
He has responded with career highs in goals (12) and points (24).
“Mathieu was a really good signing,” said coach Jacques Martin. “At this time of the season when it’s tight checking, you’ve got to battle for space and rebounds.
“He’s the type of individual who will excel in these situations. He might not be the quickest guy, but he’s got a good understanding of the game and he’s committed.”
Martin said the rest he got during his injury also helped him come back with some extra jump in his game.
“I found out over the years I spent in the minors that there’s a lot of good players,” said Darche, who is the younger brother of former NFL long-snapper Jean-Philippe Darche. “A lot of it is being in the right place at the right time and having the right people backing you.
“I’ve seen a lot of good payers who never got a chance. I always enjoyed what I did and that’s why I stuck with it. It’s a nice reward on the tail end of a career, but i don’t want to say the end because I feel I still have a few years in me.”
Price won player of the year honours in a landslide, having only once not been player of the month when Tomas Plekanec won in January.
It was the first season the Canadiens took selections of their three stars for games away from the local media and gave it over to fans, who voted online or through a Bell app. Price won with 27,630 total votes to 11,893 for Plekanec and 8,862 for Gionta.
Price is expected to set a team record for goaltender appearances in a season with his 71st against Chicago. He shares the mark at 70 with Gerry McNeil (1950-51 and 1952-52) and Jacques Plante (1961-62).
“I’ve just been enjoying playing hockey and the guys have played really well in front of me this year,” said Price.”Being the goaltender, I just get the most recognition for it.
“I didn’t know what to expect coming into this year. I’ve been taking it in stride. It seems to be working so I’ll just keep doing that.”
Hamrlik leads the Canadiens with 1,696 minutes 36 seconds of ice time this season and his 187 blocked shots is best on the team and fourth in the NHL. He played his 1,300th career NHL game and is fourth among active players.