Dominique Ducharme is learning, bit by bit

It’s been a gradual process, but the Canadiens are starting to round into form, and their coach is a big reason why.

As the Montreal Canadiens staggered into the post-season, the reviews on their rookie head coach were lukewarm at best. While Dominique Ducharme had shown flashes of promise after assuming Claude Julien’s post, those flashes quickly fizzled as the Canadiens headed down a long, dark tunnel all too familiar to fans of the club over the last decade.

Four games into the first-round series with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ducharme’s fate seemed all but sealed. The interim bench boss had been criticized for scratching his younger players: Cole Caufield, Jesperi Kotkaniem, and Alexander Romanov. Related to this, Ducharme also was accused of a deferential preference for veterans like Eric Staal. Perhaps most grievous, the coach was lambasted for adopting a passive style intended to absorb offensive waves and strike on the counter.

After a 4-0 embarrasment on home ice and a 3-1 series deficit, it was clear that something had to change.

Fortunately for the Canadiens and their faithful, Ducharme recognized this as well.

Changes had already been percolating: Games 3 and 4 saw the insertion of Caufield and Kotkaniemi into the lineup (as well as the decision to play the former with Nick Suzuki), the reuniting of the Tomas Tatar-Phillip Danault-Brendan Gallagher line, and the decision to no longer employ Josh Anderson as a counter to Auston Matthews. But the biggest pivot occurred in Game 5, when Ducharme’s charges flipped the script on the Leafs and took the game to them for the first time all series.

Entering Game 6, it was essential that Ducharme not waver in his commitment to this new prerogative.

Jake Evans presented the first major challenge. Would Ducharme play the dynamic centre who epitomized the new up-tempo style that the team had just re-adopted? That the answer was in the affirmative raised few eyebrows, but just how Evans would be deployed surprised many. Instead of displacing obvious candidates Staal or Kotkaniemi, Ducharme put Evans on Danault’s wing, relegating Tatar to the pressbox.

On the surface, this move bordered on insanity, a bias against the Slovak soon-to-be free agent who has borne the brunt of the blame for his line’s offensive failings this series. Of course, Evans’s stellar performance against Matthews in Game 6 would clearly vindicate Ducharme’s decision-making (although I’m honestly not convinced that Tatar in that position wouldn’t have done just as well). More importantly than that though, the decision to use Evans here shows that Ducharme is beginning to understand how his top line works.

During the late stages of the regular season, Ducharme elevated Kotkaniemi alongside Danault and Tatar in order to spark more offensive production. However, the primary strength of the Tatar-Danault-Gallagher line is not just their synchronicity, but their high tempo; their ability to catch opposing players off guard and keep sequences alive by forcing turnovers in the offensive zone or on attempted zone exits. Kotkaniemi, while skilled, plays the game at a tempo more than a few beats behind, and so could never create any sort of harmony.

Ducharme’s recognition of this fact is likely why he placed the buzzsaw Evans next to Danault and Gallagher rather than options like Tyler Toffoli, Corey Perry, or Joel Armia, all of whom play the game much more methodically than what the top line requires.

The other major challenge would arise during the game itself. After the Canadiens took a 2-0 lead early in the third period, Sheldon Keefe responded by overloading his big guns. Not only did William Nylander occasionally suit up alongside Matthews and Mitch Marner, but of the 17 shifts from Toffoli’s goal to the end of regulation, one of Matthews, Marner, or Nylander was on the ice for 11 of them.

Ducharme had seen this before. On April 19, the Canadiens entered the third period with a 1-0 lead against the Edmonton Oilers, only to be blitzed by a steady diet of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl en route to a 4-1 defeat. In that game, Ducharme had kept his defensive deployments relatively equal, with both Alexander Romanov and Brett Kulak taking a regular shift. Now, with the season on the line, Ducharme was desperate for history to not repeat itself.

As Toronto threw out its top players again and again, Ducharme responded by eschewing his third pairing altogether. Yes, the trio of Shea Weber, Ben Chiarot, and Jeff Petry all surpassed 34 minutes of ice time, with Joel Edmundson coming in at 28:38, but Matthews played 30:11 and Marner 30:22. Hampered by Jake Muzzin departing the game, Morgan Rielly logged 34:34 while T.J. Brodie racked up 31:18. Fatigue, of course, is a factor as we head to Game 7, but we have to remember that fatigue is a two-way street.

Dominique Ducharme’s first foray into the NHL Playoffs has certainly not been perfect, but the Joliette native, to his credit, has been willing to acknowledge his mistakes and make the necessary adjustments, even when they run counter to his innate tendencies. Now, the biggest challenge of his brief NHL career looms amidst a sea of condos and offices. In hostile territory and without last change, can he take all that he has learned and come up with a strategy to send the Leafs to another summer of soul-searching?

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