Let’s go back in time, way back to before the start of this season, when the first of three coaches of these Montreal Canadiens said something that is even truer now than it was then.
"It’s easy enough to look at the names of our forwards and see we have four lines that should be very competitive," Claude Julien stated on Oct. 22. "I’d say right away, with the number of players we have up front who can score and do good work, that we can easily eliminate the idea of a first line, a second line, a third line; I think it’ll be a question of the line playing best during a given game playing as the top line that night."
This was at the foundation of optimism for this Canadiens season, after Tyler Toffoli, Josh Anderson and Corey Perry were added to a young and blossoming forward core, and it is now one of the main reasons why the Canadiens are within two wins of the Stanley Cup Final — with late-season additions Cole Caufield and Eric Staal bolstering the balance and depth up front.
And no matter who’s been behind the bench, they’ve rolled everyone, with Staal averaging 11:10 at even strength, Phillip Danault averaging 16:28 and all other forwards slotting in between during these playoffs.
If Dominique Ducharme, much like Julien before him, took umbrage at people enumerating his lines, it’s because he’s seen the line he’s given the least amount of ice time to serve as one of his two best since Game 1 of the series against the Winnipeg Jets. "I don’t know if it’s a fourth line," he said before a positive COVID-19 test forced him into quarantine ahead of Game 3 of this Cup semifinal against the Vegas Golden Knights, and he was right.
Staal, Perry and Joel Armia have been a tornado in the offensive zone, wearing down the defence on the cycle and generating 30 scoring chances — 18 of them from the high-danger zone — over their last eight games. By comparison, Montreal’s most talented line of Nick Suzuki, Toffoli and Caufield has generated 35 scoring chances — 15 of them from the high-danger zone — in 14 more minutes together as a trio over that same stretch.
Both lines have been excellent, but none have been better over the last three games than the one that was called out by Ducharme (and even yours truly) ahead of Game 2 of this series. Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Paul Byron and Anderson combined on four of the seven goals the Canadiens scored over Games 2, 3 and 4 and have done their part.
Not that they’ve underperformed, because they’ve faced some of the best players in the world every time they’ve stepped on the ice and have surrendered — you guessed it — zero goals in the 78 minutes they’ve played together at even strength. But they’ve only scored two as a trio and, after not capitalizing on their best chances in Game 4, they could make the difference at this critical juncture.
"I think the expectations are how they’re playing right now," Ducharme’s replacement, Luke Richardson, said on Monday. "They’re really doing a great job defensively. We really count on them in that department. They’re really doing a great job as you can see with the scores of every game and the scoring chances. They’re doing a great job there and they’re creating. Gally, I think, had his better game of the series there (Sunday) night. He had some good chances, almost broke free a couple of times and some shots on the net, and you know he’s always going to be around that crease. They had a couple of good scoring chances off the rush … I know one in the second period where Lehkonen made a great play through the neutral zone and we got pucks to the net again, and that line goes to the net hard and stops at the crease hopefully looking for rebounds. I think the expectations for any line, but especially them, is you don’t get scored against, you don’t give up scoring chances and when you have a chance to create, we’re going to try and put those home."
If the Danault line replicates what it did in Game 4 — controlling 75 per cent of the shot attempts and generating four high-danger scoring chances while giving up zero — you have to think they’ll be rewarded. And it would make sense if they were, because they’re due.
That it doesn’t have to be them just reinforces what Julien said all those months ago about any given line being able to be the top one on any given night.
That is what’s helped carry the Canadiens deep into the post-season, and it has to be what comes through for them if they’re to push this series back to Montreal with a chance to eliminate the Golden Knights.
All advanced statistics cited in this article were care of naturalstattrick.com