Dominique Ducharme needed to pull a rabbit out of his hat ahead of Game 4 -- and he did.
With the Montreal Canadiens on the brink of elimination, trailing the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-0 in the Stanley Cup Final, Ducharme made numerous line-up changes and his aggressive approach paid off. The Canadiens won Game 4 in overtime, extending the series with Game 5 coming up Wednesday night in Tampa Bay.
There is no doubt Ducharme made the right moves ahead of Game 4, but should the Canadiens roll with the same line-up for Game 5? Based on line rushes at this morning's skate, it appears they will. Conventional wisdom suggests this is the right approach. Why mess with a winning formula? However, there is also evidence to suggest Montreal might not be so fortunate in Game 5 if things play out similarly to Game 4.
Ducharme inserted Alexander Romanov and Brett Kulak on defence in Game 4 in place of Erik Gustafsson and Jon Merrill. This decision paid immediate dividends. Romanov scored a critical go-ahead goal for Montreal midway through the third period, while Kulak’s puck-moving ability was a welcome addition as he led all players in completed outlet passes with 11.
At the forward position, Jake Evans replaced Jesperi Kotkaniemi at centre on the third line. The new-look line of Evans, Paul Byron, and Artturi Lehkonen gave Montreal a true shutdown trio which was by far its best in terms of winning the expected goals battle on the ice at even strength. In Game 4, the Evans line was the only Canadiens line to finish with an expected goals for percentage north of 50 per cent.
The Evans line finished the game with an expected goals share of 94.9 per cent. In 9:28 of even-strength ice-time, the Evans line out-attempted the Lightning 9-5. It was this line on the ice applying forechecking pressure that led to Romanov’s third period goal. Evans’ line saw fairly even minutes against all of the Lightning’s top three lines and allowed only one shot against from the slot while on the ice. This line had a terrific game for the Canadiens.
To inject some offence on to Phillip Danault’s line, Ducharme moved Tyler Toffoli alongside Danault and Brendan Gallagher. The trio drew even in terms of goals scored with neither team converting while they were on the ice. However, the ice was heavily tilted in Tampa Bay’s favour in their 10 minutes of even-strength play. The Lightning out-attempted the Canadiens 15-5 with Danault’s line on the ice and out-chanced them 5-0.
Most of the damage came against the line of Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov, and Ondrej Palat, which spent just over six minutes against Danault’s line. The Point line accounted for all five scoring chances Danault’s line conceded. Before Game 4, Danault’s line with Lehkonen at left wing as opposed to Toffoli had won the scoring chance battle against Point’s line and had outscored it 1-0. Toffoli failed to provide the offence Ducharme was looking for and the absence of Lehkonen seemed to have had a profound impact on Danault’s line defensively.
The Romanov, Kulak, and Evans moves worked. Moving Toffoli to Danault’s line in place of Lehkonen hurt them but, as mentioned, Lehkonen had a terrific game alongside Evans and Byron.
The final move Ducharme made was inserting Josh Anderson on to a line with Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield. The move seemed to energize Anderson who finished with a pair of goals including the game-winner in overtime.
Anderson played an inspired game, mixing his skill and physicality to affect Game 4 in several positive ways. Not since Game 3 of the Canadiens' semifinal series against the Vegas Golden Knights has Anderson been so noticeable. Anderson was also the hero in that game, scoring late in regulation and again in overtime for Montreal.
On the surface, it seems like a no-brainer to keep this line together for Game 5. However, the Suzuki line gave up its fair share of chances in Game 4.
In just over nine minutes of even-strength ice-time in Game 4, the Suzuki line was out-attempted by a 4:1 ratio.
Technically, the goals for and against finished 1-1 as Eric Staal had jumped on the ice in place of Suzuki just before Anderson scored in overtime, but for all intents and purposes, it was the Suzuki line responsible for the game-winning tally. If results rule the day then, by all means, the new look Suzuki line was Montreal’s most effective, providing two of the Canadiens' three goals in the game. From a process standpoint the line gave up more than it created, including Tampa Bay’s first goal of the game off a defensive zone turnover.
The Lightning’s shutdown line of Barclay Goodrow, Yanni Gourde, and Blake Coleman forced a turnover with Goodrow depositing the puck into the back of the net moments later. It is this line that John Cooper will likely match against Suzuki, Caufield, and Anderson in Game 5.
In Game 4, without the advantage of last change, Cooper was only able to get his checking line out against Montreal’s most dangerous offensive line for 3:22. The Lightning out-attempted the Canadiens 8-1 in that short period of time. With tonight’s game in Tampa Bay, Cooper will be able to dictate this match-up as often as he likes and early returns suggest this head-to-head battle will favour the Lightning.
Loading up a scoring line was a decision that paid off for the Canadiens in Game 4. Again, Anderson scored twice and played arguably his best game since Game 3 against Vegas. However, considering the underlying results and the increased time Suzuki’s line will likely spend against Gourde’s line tonight, there is reason to believe Suzuki, Caufield, and Anderson will have to find yet another gear to produce goals as they did in Game 4.
Montreal will enter Game 5 with the knowledge that it played well enough to win in its last game at Amalie Arena. The Canadiens outshot the Lightning 43-23 in Game 2. Anderson, on a line with Kotkaniemi and Byron then, finished the game with five controlled zone entries and two scoring chances off the rush, both team highs. The more Anderson can build up speed through the neutral zone, the better for the Canadiens. With arguably Montreal’s three top-scoring threats all on one line, the Canadiens will need Suzuki, Caufield, and Anderson to impact the game the same way they did in Game 4.
The Canadiens' line-up tweaks paid dividends in Game 4 on home ice in Montreal. We'll find out tonight if the same recipe works on the road in Tampa Bay or if the Lightning will be celebrating with the Stanley Cup when the clock hits zero.