Canadiens top line perplexed at its own lack of production

Anthony Mantha scored the winning goal in overtime and the Detroit Red Wings defeated the Montreal Canadiens.

MONTREAL – Max Pacioretty stood in the Canadiens’ dressing room with his arms crossed, his shin pads still on and a perplexed look on his face.

He was searching for a reason as to why his line with Alex Galchenyuk and Alexander Radulov hadn’t been able to generate any sustained offensive zone time—let alone several scoring chances—in a 2-1 overtime loss to a Detroit Red Wings team that had come to Montreal to face the rested Canadiens after losing 2-1 to the Buffalo Sabres on Monday.

“I’m not sure,” said Pacioretty.

He talked in circles until he finally got to the root of the problem.

“We all want to be the best, we all want the puck,” said Pacioretty. “I think it’s important for a guy like [Radulov] to have the puck a lot in a game. That’s what he feeds off of, that’s what he gets his energy from… Whoever’s playing with Radu—whether it’s me and [Galchenyuk]—we kinda do a better job of getting in there, holding it for a second, and then getting Radu the puck. That’s how we’ve had success.”

Anyone who has watched Pacioretty accumulate the bulk of his 33 goals by getting the puck to Radulov—who has 33 assists—could’ve come up with that assessment.

You have to wonder if Galchenyuk, who was victimized on Anthony Mantha’s overtime winner, sees it the same way. He wasn’t available for comment after the game.

Watching Galchenyuk in isolation on Tuesday, you couldn’t help but notice how often the play died on his stick. He either coughed the puck up trying to beat a defender one-one-one or struggled to make that play that Pacioretty’s describing—the one where you hold onto it for that extra second before giving it off to the driving force of the line.

“He didn’t have a good game tonight, and he’s going to tell you the same thing,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien about the centreman. “It was a tough night for him.”

No kidding.

Galchenyuk played 17:24, failed to register a shot on net and only managed to win 33 per cent of his faceoffs. It’s a stat line that’s become a calling card whenever the 23-year-old centre, who has 15 goals and 25 assists in 52 games this season, has been given the chance to centre Pacioretty and Radulov of late.

Julien said Tuesday morning he wanted to give his top line the time to build chemistry, and felt he could do it because his three other lines, which had done the bulk of the good work and all of the scoring in back-to-back weekend wins over the Ottawa Senators, had afforded him the time.

But it was towards the end of the second period against Detroit that he tinkered with the idea of bumping Galchenyuk down. As the clock wound down in the third period, he was left with no choice but to do it.

“I split ‘em up because I thought we needed a goal,” said Julien.

The Canadiens got one from Artturi Lehkonen, who tied the game with 2:29 remaining. It might have been a game-winner or an insurance marker had the top line been able to do what was expected of it.

“You have that line that you hope will give you the goal that you need,” said Julien. “Those are some of your best players. So whether it happens or not, that’s another story.”

You have to wonder how patient Julien can afford to be with the experiment at this stage of the regular season.

The Canadiens have nine games left—four in a row at home before playing four of five on the road in April. They have yet to clinch a playoff spot, and the Senators, who picked up a win in Boston on Tuesday, are now only three points behind in the race to the top of the Atlantic Division.

If Julien intends to keep Pacioretty, Galchenyuk and Radulov together, there’s only so much he can do to coax something better out of them.

“You sit down with them, you show them video the next day, you show them certain things that they can do that will help them get better, but they also have to work at it,” said Julien. They have to have some chemistry there.”

But if there was no sign of it against a Red Wings team that came to Montreal with the worst record in the Atlantic Division; if there was no sign of it with home ice affording the Canadiens a line-matching advantage; if there hasn’t been a sign of it in four consecutive games, over which the three players have combined for three assists…

It’s no wonder Pacioretty couldn’t say with any certainty how the line could progress.

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