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David Desharnais primed for success during playoff push

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Overcoming adversity year after year, David Desharnais will play a critical role for the Montreal Canadiens during the final third of the season and beyond.

Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

For the third straight year, the Montreal Canadiens will rely heavily on the duo of David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty to lead them into the playoffs. As per usual, there are question marks surrounding which right winger will join them on the first line. A revolving door of players have occupied the position in the past; the likes of Erik Cole, Michael Ryder, Thomas Vanek, Brendan Gallagher and most recently, Dale Weise. But the aforementioned pair is the key to success, regardless of who accompanies them.

It’s no secret Pacioretty is the team’s principal offensive weapon; a premier player who leads the Habs in both goals and points once again this season. The 26-year-old has 112 goals over his last 250 regular season games, which is currently 6th in the league over that span. But in order for him, and ultimately the Habs, to remain successful, he will rely predominantly on the play of his centre.

Despite struggling offensively for the first 48 games of the season, recording an underwhelming 24 points and at one point being demoted to the team’s third line, Desharnais is primed to breakout offensively. In fact, we’re already witnessing this prognostication. The notoriously slow starter was named the NHL’s third star last week, with 2 goals, 6 assists for 8 points and a +9 rating in his last six games since the start of February.

Growth in production during the final third of the season is nothing new for Desharnais. If the past is any indication, he will not only play a critical role in Pacioretty’s success, but in the team’s offensive output as a whole throughout their third straight push to the post-season and beyond. Overcoming adversity and coming out on top is just the way it has always been.

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If there’s one player who comprehends that nothing is ever handed to you, it’s Desharnais. Perseverance immediately comes to mind when describing the 28-year-old. Listed at 5-foot-7, 176 pounds; the odds have always been stacked against him.

Despite recording a ridiculous 374 points in 262 games with the Chicoutimi Sagueneens of the QMJHL, Desharnais was passed over in the NHL draft; undoubtedly because of his size. Finding another undrafted player with comparable numbers is a dubious proposition at best.

He was eventually invited to training camp by the Canadiens, but it was rather apparent his dream of playing in the NHL, if at all possible, would require constant patience, determination and fortitude. As expected, he didn’t make the team and joined the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL, where he won the league’s scoring title as a rookie with 106 points in just 68 games. He continued his notable campaign by recording 33 points in 22 playoff games, leading the Cyclones to a championship.

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The following season, Desharnais was once again extended an invitation to Canadiens camp, finally signing a two-year, two-way deal with the club. Over a pair of seasons with the Hamilton Bulldogs of the AHL, which involved a momentary six game stretch with the Habs, he averaged a point per game pace; notching 136 points in 137 games. Suddenly, the thought of a promotion to the NHL was plausible.

In 2010-11, despite failing to crack the Canadiens roster out of camp, Desharnais entered the season with confidence and assurance. He swiftly found himself playing on the top line for the Bulldogs with Pacioretty, and the duo was unstoppable. Pacioretty scored 17 goals, 15 assists for 32 points in 27 games before being called up by the Habs. Desharnais was a primary reason for Pacioretty’s success, scoring 10 goals, 35 assists for 45 points in 35 games; leading to his promotion as well.

Desharnais rose to the challenge, with 22 points in 43 NHL games as a rookie. He also made a brief five game appearance in the playoffs before suffering an injury. After years of working his way on to the Habs roster, his time had finally arrived.

The following season, Desharnais formed a line with Pacioretty and Cole; breaking out with 16 goals, 44 assists for 60 points in his first full NHL season. Again, he played a pivotal role in Pacioretty’s success. In fact, he assisted on 39 percent of his 33 goals. Their chemistry was obvious, and Desharnais was evidently becoming the number one centre the Canadiens desperately needed.

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On March 15th, 2013, Desharnais signed a four-year, $14 million extension with the Habs. After recording 88 points in his previous 129 games, the $3.5 million cap hit appeared to be a nice deal for both sides; the assumption being he was poised for further success in 2013-14. However, that was far from the case early on.

Desharnais had a dreadful start, with just one measly assist over the first 21 games of the season, having played in 19 and being a healthy scratch for two more. His struggles were compounded by the fact that his linemate, Pacioretty, who was expected to lead the team in scoring, had just two goals, two assists for four points in the first 12 games of the year.

Everyone wanted Desharnais off the team and out of town. With the pressure that comes from playing in Montreal, it was becoming increasingly difficult to envision a scenario where he would play his way out of the slump. But one famous Tweet from Mayor Dennis Coderre sparked rapid and unexpected change.

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Being forced to overcome adversity was nothing new to Desharnais, and his past certainly assisted in handling the tough challenge in front of him. He handled everything the way he needed to, but most importantly, his teammates (Pacioretty in particular) had his back every step of the way; sticking up for him after Coderre’s Tweet.

"I'm very, very upset about that," said Pacioretty. "To bring down a player - such a great person, such a great player, such a hard worker... Davey's a true competitor and he's a great player and a great teammate, and that's just uncalled for."

Everything started to change a few days later during the 20th game of the season, a 3-2 shootout victory on the road over the Columbus Blue Jackets. Despite not recording a point in the game, Desharnais scored the eventual shootout winner to a huge roar from his teammates.

Think of the weight on his shoulders in that moment. He faced the pressure head on, and he delivered. Suddenly, his entire season transformed. Two games later, in a matchup against the Minnesota Wild, Desharnais notched a pair of assists in his best game of the year up until that point. He would go on to finish the year with 52 points in 79 games, highlighted by an impressive run where he recorded 51 points in 60 games succeeding the struggles.

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The most amazing part of the 2013-14 campaign came from February 1st and on, a period where Desharnais recorded 8 goals, 18 assists for 26 points in the final 28 games of the season; by far the greatest stretch of his NHL career thus far. Over the above-mentioned period, Pacioretty scored an absurd 16 goals, while adding 11 assists for 27 points. It’s important to note that Desharnais assisted on 50 percent of his goals. Both Pacioretty and Desharnais were collectively playing their best hockey of the season at the most critical time, and that’s nothing new.

This trend dates back to 2011-12, when we first witnessed the emergence of both players. From February 1st and on, Desharnais had 7 goals, 18 assists for 25 points in 31 games. 41 percent of his 60 points came over said period. Pacioretty had 15 goals, 14 assists for 29 points during the stretch, with Desharnais assisting on 33 percent of his goals.

Although the following lockout shortened 48-game season was slightly less productive statistically, it was strong nonetheless.  Desharnais put up 10 points in the final 16 games, while Pacioretty continued his solid end of season play; tracking a point per game pace with 14 points over the final third of the year.

The movement is in full effect once again this season. After a very slow start, Desharnais has 2 goals, 6 assists for 8 points with a +9 rating in his last six games since February 1st. This is concurrent with being reunited on a line next to Pacioretty. It’s also no surprise to see Pacioretty experiencing a growth in assists, with 4 helpers in six games since coming together again.

Pacioretty constantly experiences an increase in assists during the final third of the season, largely due to the fact that Desharnais has a habit of scoring most of his goals from February 1st and on. In 2011-12, Desharnais scored 16 goals in 81 games, with 44 percent coming in the final 31 games of the season. Pacioretty assisted on five of his seven goals, with 44 percent of his assists coming after the start of February. This was even more apparent in 2013-14. Desharnais scored 50 percent of his 16 goals in the final 28 games of the season. It’s no coincidence that 52 percent of Pacioretty’s assists came during that period.

All indications are that history will repeat itself once again. Although Pacioretty has been great all season long, his numbers will grow even more in the final third of the year, and that will be largely due to the play of his centre. No matter how slow of a start Desharnais might have, or how much he might struggle, he’s prone to overcoming hardship. Year after year, he plays his best hockey when it matters most. If Tuesday’s overtime game winning goal against the Philadelphia Flyers is a hint at what’s to come, Desharnais is ready to prove everybody wrong yet again.