MONTREAL—Claude Julien played it coy.
The Montreal Canadiens coach made a decision halfway through Tuesday’s meeting with the Ottawa Senators that changed the complexion of the entire game. He pulled Paul Byron off a line with Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Artturi Lehkonen, put him with Max Domi and Jonathan Drouin, and shifted Andrew Shaw down into his place. And afterwards he had no interest in explaining what motivated his thinking on it.
"None of your business," he said jokingly. "I’m going to tell you the same thing I tell everyone; it’s called coaching."
"I see certain things," Julien continued, but no real explanation followed. At least not one that satisfied these ears.
This is a man who’s reticent to change things in-game. He resists making changes high up in his lineup, period. It’s why Domi and Drouin have played together since the first game of the season. Ditto for Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar, who connected on Montreal’s fifth goal in their 5-2 win over Ottawa.
The timing of Julien’s decision to swap Byron and Shaw was totally peculiar. Especially after Domi had set up Drouin for the game’s first goal and gotten into a fight on Shaw’s behalf after Drake Batherson got his elbow up on a reverse check. And especially after Drouin had scored such a beauty—forehand, backhand, five-hole on Craig Anderson—and had had such an effective first period in stealing pucks, leading rushes, backchecking and drawing a power play.
Julien’s timing was peculiar, but it was also impeccable.
The score was 1-1, the shots were 22-22. It was just after a shift where Dylan Demelo had tied things up for the Senators when Montreal’s bench boss pulled the trigger on this game-altering move.
On Byron’s first shift with Domi and Drouin, he charged in on the backcheck and stopped a sure goal by lifting Brady Tkachuk’s stick right as a pass came across Carey Price’s crease.
And then, just a couple of minutes later, Byron made a hard forecheck in the offensive zone and forced the Senators to reverse the puck. Drouin was waiting right there, he intercepted, set up Domi in the slot, and the Canadiens took a 2-1 lead.
On their next shift as a trio, Byron took a pass in the neutral zone and immediately bumped it to Domi, who moved it over to Drouin. A three-on-two developed—with Byron taking a hard line to the net and Domi fading behind Drouin.
Drouin then used Byron as a decoy and dropped the puck to Domi, and a rising wristshot from the right faceoff circle made it 3-1 Canadiens.
It was 49 seconds later that Shaw came over the offensive blue line on his strong side and in possession of the puck. He moved it quickly to Kotkaniemi, who corralled it and pushed it across the crease for a tap-in for Lehkonen.
"Ironically, they both became good fits on both lines I put them on," said Julien of Byron and Shaw.
We may never know why he made the change when he did, but it’s not hard to understand why both players fit in their new spots. Even if Julien didn’t quite want to get into it.
If Domi and Drouin play the game at 100 miles per hour, Byron can’t slow them down going 110. That he brings the same tenacity—and willingness to attack the net—as Shaw does only helps his case.
That Byron can play in all situations and handle first-line minutes helps it, too. That he scored at least 20 goals in each of the last two seasons prior to this one makes it.
And Shaw—who plays as fast as he can, but nowhere near as fast as Drouin, Domi or Byron—is a natural fit with Kotkaniemi. He benefits as a right-handed option for the left-handed centreman, and he can do a lot of the dirty work on a line that’s more inclined to cycle the puck and play down low in the zone.
The 18-year-old Kotkaniemi is a six-foot-two, 184-pounder who hasn’t yet grown into his frame—and hasn’t fully developed his skating stride to where it will be down the line. Those growing pains explain how he felt about playing with Byron, who was placed on his line after a four-week absence with a lower-body injury to help finish off some of the plays Kotkaniemi was creating. Plays Lehkonen and Charles Hudon weren’t capitalizing on.
"He’s flying there, so it’s fun to get him on my line," Kotkaniemi said prior to last Saturday’s 5-2 win over the New York Rangers. "Sometimes it’s hard because I’m a slower guy, so it’s a little bit harder."
Even if Lehkonen broke through with two goals in Saturday’s game, things appeared a bit disjointed between him, Kotkaniemi and Byron. They continued to appear disjointed through a 3-1 loss to the San Jose Sharks on Sunday, and they were just ordinary through the first half of Tuesday’s game. If we saw it, certainly Julien did too.
He made the change and the Canadiens out-scored the Senators 4-1 and out-shot them 19-8 after he did.
"You see certain things because you know your players well enough," Julien said. "Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t."
This time it helped the Canadiens improve to 13-10-5 on their season. It helped them earn a second win over their last three games after losing five in a row. It helped them avoid being caught in the standings by the Senators, who came into Tuesday’s game just two points behind. And it helped them pull within a point of the Boston Bruins, who lost 5-0 to the Florida Panthers.
Just some good old-fashioned coaching, eh.