Bulldogs call-ups giving Habs big boost

by Steve Milton / for the Hamilton Spectator || AHL On The Beat Archive 

One hour removed from Copps Coliseum, there were 35 Bulldog goals on the ice in Buffalo on Jan. 18. And Hamilton isn’t likely to get any of them back soon.

Not when Yannick Weber is playing well on a blue-line ravaged by two season-ending injuries, not when Max Pacioretty has become the power forward Brian Gionta and Chris Gomez were aching for, and not when David Desharnais is bringing first-line offensive skills to the third line.

And not when Montreal Canadiens’ regulars keep dropping like pine needles.

This is how a farm system is supposed to work, at least for the lord of the manor. For the farmer? Well, the Bulldogs better memorize Meatloaf’s Two out of Three Ain’t Bad.

Desharnais, Pacioretty and Weber had totalled 92 points in a combined 77 games for the Dogs before, one-by-one, they were whisked up to the parent Habs.

But only Desharnais — summoned at the start of the new year — was expected back over the next little while. That expectation, too, has changed, even though forward Benoit Pouliot returns to the lineup Friday.

“I like the way he’s played,” head coach Jacques Martin said Tuesday morning. “He’s got good offensive skills, but he’s been responsible defensively. We brought him up when we traded Maxim Lapierre. … And we’ve only got 13 forwards.”

And that was before Pacioretty and Mike Cammalleri left the ice with apparently serious aggravations during the first period of a 2-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres in overtime. Pacioretty took a shot right in the midriff and was transported to hospital via ambulance and Cammalleri separated his shoulder.

Desharnais got his second marker in his current eight-game stay when he put the Canadiens up 1-0, converting Roman Hamrlik’s point shot into a first-period power play.

The 24-year-old Desharnais — the only Canadien ever to wear the left guard’s number (58) — is one of those athletes you have to look up to. Even if you’re not vertically challenged.

He’s 5-foot-7 (mostly in his dreams) and has fought height discrimination all of his hockey life. A big-time junior scorer, but never drafted, all he had to do was lead the ECHL in scoring and become its MVP for the Canadiens to take a flyer on him.

This year, he was merely leading the American Hockey League in scoring before he got the nod when the Habs tired of Lapierre’s incomplete act and dealt him to Disneyland.

That brought him to the NHL in time for the Liliputian Bowl against the Sabres. Three of the league’s five smallest players — 5-foot-5 Sabre Nathan Gerbe and the Habs’ two 5-foot-7 forwards, Gionta and Desharnais — were in uniform, as were fellow small guys Tyler Ennis and Cammalleri.

“Every day it feels like the hockey world’s against you when it comes to size,” Gerbe told The Spectator. “You have to prove everyone wrong every day.

“I’m aware of (Desharnais). He scored his first NHL goal about a week ago, right?. I’ve followed him. You always root for those guys, like Skinner in Carolina. I hear about all the small guys.”

As does Desharnais.

“Gerbe is a small guy and he made his way through, same with Ennis,” he said. “I think the new rules since the lockout help us.

“No one here has talked to me about being smaller. I’m just checking those guys’ play and seeing how they work. I’m here, so I made my way through and they know I can do the same at this level.”

During a call-up last year and while he was still with the ‘Dogs in the fall, Desharnais’ case was being publicly pleaded by the French-language media. But he says that doesn’t create any undue expectations.

“I don’t think it’s more pressure on me,” he says, “because I put a lot of pressure on myself, anyway.

“In the pre-season, everybody gets a chance. But now it’s the best guys that stay. It’s noticeable. It’s a little faster: It’s the middle of the season so everyone is in shape and everyone has their talent back.”

Their talent back. Hmmm. That’s something the Bulldogs would probably like, too, although they sure weren’t short of goals in a 7-0 win over Rochester on Tuesday.

Still, consider the Canadiens have seven players in their lineup who were essentially full-time Bulldogs last year, three of whom were counted upon to lead the team this year. That’s a lot of sudden adjustment for an AHL team, even a good one.

“They’ve won games without us,” Desharnais says. “For sure, it hurts a team, but they’re going to be all right. They have a lot of good players down there and they’re going to step up.’

Notice the “they” part. Even Desharnais is starting to realize the Dogs will be without him — not to mention Weber and Pacioretty — for quite a while yet.