Canadiens' Ducharme must stop line experimentation in critical Game 4

Held to one goal in each of their last two games and without a power play goal in the series, Faizal Khamisa and Eric Engels look at how Montreal's offence needs to get going ahead of Game 4 against the Maple Leafs.

MONTREAL — You must go with what you know, to borrow from Dominique Ducharme, who gave a strange but perfect card-game analogy before Monday’s Game 3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs to explain why John Merrill was playing over Alexander Romanov.

“You can’t jump on the ice and be a 10 — or whatever card you are, pick a number — and then suddenly be an ace, and then be a three,” he said. “You can’t be unpredictable.”

We can’t necessarily think of a game where the face value of a card does what Ducharme suggested, but he was right about what he was saying, and he needs to lean into that mentality ahead of assembling his lines and power play schemes if he wants the Canadiens to take Tuesday’s Game 4 and send this series back to Toronto tied 2-2. What is known to him at this point is much more valuable than the unknown.

If the Canadiens spent most of the first 40 minutes of Game 3 chasing the puck, it was at least somewhat influenced by the sheer randomness of their makeup. Brendan Gallagher, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Tyler Toffoli, who had played less than 30 minutes together at five-on-five this season, had to spend much of that time finding chemistry. Same goes with Tomas Tatar, Phillip Danault and Josh Anderson, who spent just 45:15 together from mid-January to mid-May.

The time for experimentation is over. The Canadiens have scored just four goals through three games and produced nothing on its momentum-killing power play, so some stability is in order if they want to change all of that.

Ducharme started this series with Tatar, Danault and Gallagher together and abandoned the line after a game-and-a-half. He was somewhat justified, given how the line performed, but their chemistry built over hundreds of games together should bring out the best in them in this situation. All three players were coming off injuries ahead of the first game, and now all three of them are into this series and need to be given their best opportunity to help the Canadiens tie it.

It’s a reality Gallagher seemed to acknowledge in his carefully-framed comments after Monday’s game.

“The first game, I thought we didn’t really do much bad but didn’t create much,” he said. “I thought in the second game, we had a pretty decent first period, and then after that we got into some penalty trouble and really didn’t play together after that. I’ll say there probably wasn’t much time, but if we get back together, we’re probably pretty confident.”

Gallagher, who has yet to score in this series, finished his thought by saying the lines were able to create some positive momentum for the Canadiens in a third period that saw them out-shoot the Maple Leafs 15-2, but there’s no way he, Tatar and Danault feel they have a better chance of being effective with anyone else than they would be with each other.

Before the series, Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe referred to them as “as good a line as there is in the league the last few years,” and the numbers reflect that. His counterpart surely knows.

Ducharme would also know that even if Toffoli and Nick Suzuki didn’t produce much together through Games 1 and 2, they played 336:54 as Montreal’s highest-scoring pair at 5-on-5 this season. They were dynamite in all situations down the stretch, with 14 goals and 26 points over their final 12 games.

The coach may not opt for a reunion in Game 4, but Suzuki explained on Tuesday morning why one would be a good idea, with Toffoli stuck on zero goals for the series after scoring 28 in the regular season.

“I think our chemistry just comes with how we both think the game,” he said. “(Toffoli) sees the ice at a very high level. He’s able to make any plays. He’s a great shooter. I think we just meshed really well at the end of the season there. And if we get the chance to play together again, I thought we were a little not as great with the puck as we usually are in the first two games of the series, (but) I felt better last game (and) he had some great chances last night.

“I like playing with him, so if we get chance, I’m definitely open to it.”

With neither player being among Montreal’s fastest skaters, and with both of them paired with one of the team’s slower movers in Joel Armia, it was a struggle against the Maple Leafs’ speedy defensive duo of Morgan Rielly and T.J. Brodie in Toronto.

But in Montreal, the Canadiens control the matchups. Ducharme can get Toffoli and Suzuki away from those two for at least some of the time, and he can swap out Armia for Cole Caufield for a much-needed turbo boost.

“There’s a lot of things to like (about playing with Caufield),” said Suzuki. “He plays the game with high energy, sees the ice well. I think that’s an underrated part of his game. He’s able to make all the plays, and when he gets a scoring opportunity, he’s always ready to shoot the puck.”

Caufield being an elite offensive talent is the reason he played with Suzuki in Game 2, and though the sample size was small during the regular season, it was proven there’s something between the two of them and Toffoli. They controlled 70 per cent of the shot attempts and 63 per cent of the expected goals in their limited time as a line.

This is a known commodity, just like Caufield’s one-timer on the left side of the power play.

That’s where the kid has scored the bulk of his goals with the Wisconsin Badgers over the last two seasons, but it’s not where he’s been playing for most his time with the Canadiens.

“He can go both sides, and that’s something that we can use,” Ducharme said ahead of Game 4. “So depending on who he’s going to be on with, he might be on the left side, he might be on the right.

“So, that’s something that’s good for a goal scorer—to be able to play different spots like that on the power play makes it less predictable, and I think he’s good at shooting the puck from both sides.”

Yes, Caufield showed he’s capable on the right. He even notched Montreal’s best scoring chance from there in Game 2 with a shot he ripped off the crossbar on an early power play.

But just the threat of his one-timer on the left would open up more options all over the ice for the Canadiens, and taking that away seems counterintuitive and counterproductive.

So did mixing up the Canadiens’ best unit instead of trusting it to deliver through the first three games. Toffoli, Suzuki and Jeff Petry were on together for 12 of 29 goals the Canadiens scored on the power play this season, but Shea Weber has been in Petry’s spot throughout this series.

A return to base is in order. Ducharme wouldn’t confirm his lineup for Game 4 -- Artturi Lehkonen, Jake Evans and Eric Staal are all game-time decisions -- but he’d be wise to go with what he knows, because the unpredictability factor is hurting the Canadiens much more than its helping them so far.

All advanced stats courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.com.

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