Muller must redeem himself, lean on Canadiens’ leaders in must-win Game 5

The Hockey Central panel speak about the losses handed to the Calgary Flames and Montreal Canadiens who are now both facing elimination.

TORONTO — A few hours after the Montreal Canadiens suffered a devastating loss that put their season on the rocks, the Western Conference’s 12th-seeded Chicago Blackhawks attempted to stave off elimination against the Vegas Golden Knights.

They were unsuccessful in their bid, but at least they went down swinging.

Guess who their two most-used forwards were in the 4-3 loss? Jonathan Toews played 24 shifts and Patrick Kane played 26. The former opened the scoring, the latter gave the Blackhawks a 3-2 lead in the second period and both players double shifted after Alex Tuch scored what proved to be the winner for the Golden Knights early in the third.

Why? Because when it’s all on the line, you invariably go with the players you pay to deliver in those situations. The players who have proven time and time again they’re willing to do anything to put the puck in the net and make the difference.

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No disrespect to Dominik Kubalik, the 24-year-old rookie who scored 30 goals to earn a Calder Trophy nomination before starting off his Stanley Cup Playoff career with a record-breaking five-point game, but his 16 minutes versus the 18 and 22 Toews and Kane respectively played was perfectly justifiable.

We wonder if Brendan Gallagher was still brooding in his hotel room as the Blackhawks were packing their bags to exit the Edmonton bubble. The heart-and-soul forward for the Montreal Canadiens, their leading goal scorer in each of the last three seasons, had seen the ice for just over 13 minutes in a game the Flyers led for all but six-and-a-half-minutes and won by a score of 2-0. He had been benched for much of the second period, and for all but four shifts in the third, and he appeared furious as he sat and answered questions about it afterwards.

“I guess if the coach feels other guys are going to do the job better than you, that’s his job,” Gallagher said.

He didn’t have to tell us how he felt about Kirk Muller’s decision to play rookie Jake Evans — he of two goals and four assists in 17 NHL contests, regular season and post-season combined — in his spot; about how frustrated he was to not be given a chance to make the difference, a chance to get his first goal of these playoffs in the most crucial game of the year. It was written all over his face.

Understanding that Gallagher isn’t Toews or Kane — he’s never won a Stanley Cup, let alone three of them, and he hadn’t performed at nearly the same level for the Canadiens as either player did for Chicago in the lead up to Tuesday’s games — it’s impossible to agree with how was used in Game 4.

In fact, Muller’s itchy trigger finger misfired huge on a multitude of changes he made to stimulate a Canadiens goal for the first time since halfway through the third period of Game 2. The interim head coach of the Canadiens, filling in for the convalescing Claude Julien who had a cardiac episode in the hours that followed Game 1, repeated multiple times after his team was shutout in Game 3 that he was just trying to identify “who was going” and get them on the ice as frequently as possible.

That meant putting 20-year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi out for the final two minutes of the loss while Gallagher looked on from the bench. In Game 4, it meant parking Gallagher and Jonathan Drouin while Joel Armia, who has one lucky goal and five penalties in these playoffs, jumped on the ice for nine third-period shifts.

We asked Muller how his most reliable players can be expected to carry the team if they can’t get on the ice.

“I think what we’ve got to do is wake up tomorrow — this game’s over — and get ready to find a way to win a hockey game tomorrow night,” he responded, avoiding the question. “So, we’ve got good pros there, they’re proud guys, and I expect them to get up tomorrow and be ready to go and come with a real good fight for tomorrow’s game.”

It’s a game that offers Muller a chance to redeem himself as well, a chance to find a better balance between going with the hot hand and relying on the guys who more often than not will deliver. He’s right about moving on; Game 4 is in the past, as are all the other games of these playoffs in which Gallagher shot but couldn’t score.

Game 5 is on the horizon, and a coach who played 19 seasons in this league and won two Stanley Cups along the way surely knows that this is the time to lean on your leaders.

If Muller doesn’t do it, these Canadiens are likely going down looking instead of swinging.

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