MONTREAL – When your team goes more than 61 minutes between goals in a playoff series, there are going to be questions about your top offensive players. What was truly telling on Friday morning is that Michel Therrien was more than willing to answer them.
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The Montreal Canadiens coach stopped short of calling out his top line while speaking with reporters, but you barely had to read between the lines to get a sense of how he feels. Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais have just one assist apiece in this series and have already prompted Therrien to make one change designed to get them going.
Brendan Gallagher took Thomas Vanek’s spot on that unit starting in Game 3, but the move has yet to pay off. There’s no reason to expect further changes. Instead, Therrien is putting the onus squarely on his players.
“I want our best players to be able to perform and to contribute to the success of the team offensively,” he said. “There are certain players that are having some trouble contributing offensively. These types of players need to adjust to the intensity of the playoffs.”
Goals are becoming tougher to come by. The referees have basically buried their whistles in this series, giving Montreal just two power plays in the last two games. At even strength, the Habs and Bruins are each playing tight, controlled hockey.
Essentially, they are building walls and hoping the opponent can’t smash through them.
Adding to the challenge for the Desharnais line is that the Bruins have high-end defensive players. However, part of Therrien’s frustration no doubt comes from the fact that he was able to get his No. 1 unit more favourable matchups in the games at the Bell Centre and they still didn’t produce.
In Boston, the Desharnais trio saw a steady diet of Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara – past winners, and current nominees, for the Selke Trophy and Norris Trophy, respectively. Those were tough minutes. But the decision to swap Vanek/Gallagher while gaining the last line change when the series shifted to Montreal allowed Therrien more freedom to let his big dogs run.
Consider that during Thursday’s 1-0 loss that most frequent matchup for Desharnais came against Carl Soderberg – Boston’s third-line centre – and the bottom defence pairing of Mart Bartkowski and Johnny Boychuk. Given that opportunity, Montreal’s top three forwards combined for just four shots on goal.
Conclusion: They need to be better.
“Yes, they are being checked very tightly, we’re aware of it on both sides,” said Therrien. “But there’s an intensity to the beginning of the season, an intensity to the middle of the season and there’s an intensity to the end of the regular season. But when you get to the playoffs, it’s another type of intensity.
“Those types of players need to adapt to that challenge.”
Pacioretty, in particular, has been silent. His only goal in eight playoff games came in the first-round clincher against Tampa Bay. The 39-goal man from the regular season acknowledged that night that he had been struggling to stay “sane” through the mini-drought.
We can only guess how he must be feeling now because he hasn’t spoken with reporters since the second round got underway. It might be instructive for Pacioretty to take some advice from an unlikely source – teammate Douglas Murray, the resident sin-eater in this village who was beaten by Matt Fraser on the Bruins overtime winner in Game 4.
Twelve hours later, as the Habs prepared to depart for Boston, Murray proclaimed that “you’ve got to have short-term memory in the playoffs.”
And that’s true. The complexion of a series changes with each passing game and the Habs didn’t have to stretch reality very far to find some positives from their situation. While still being considered the lesser team, the series is dead even heading into Saturday’s Game 5.
“Now we’re going to their building and I think it’s pressure on them,” asserted centre Tomas Plekanec. “They’re playing at home and they need that game.”
Lars Eller, a real bright spot for the Habs in this series, added that “we didn’t expect this to be easy.”
“We’re confident,” he said. “It sucks to lose, it always hurts no matter what, but we’re not discouraged. It’s 2-2 and it’s still a very open series. We’ve won games in Boston before, we’re confident we can do it again and we’re not in a bad position here.”
The key now will be finding a way to seize the moment. In the final analysis, it won’t end up mattering that the first line struggled early if they can deliver when it counts.
More than anything, that was the message Therrien was trying to deliver.
“I’m not pointing my finger at anyone,” he said, fooling no one. “There’s a group of players that need to perform and bring us some more offence.”
We know exactly who they are.