Ducharme's line changes propel Canadiens to near-perfect win over Canucks

Carey Price stopped 23 of 24 shots faced and the Canadiens’ offence backed him for a 5-1 win over the Canucks.

Phillip Danault pumped his arms and then threw one over his shoulder to shed a silverback gorilla.

Forget about getting the monkey off there with his first goal in 24 games and almost three full periods of a 25th, this was a much bigger beast to conquer. It gave the 28-year-old a thrill he needed and punctuated a 5-1 win Wednesday for the Montreal Canadiens over the Vancouver Canucks.

“Obviously, it feels really good,” Danault said. “You try to work as hard as you can and doing the right things every game, and sometimes it’s harder to score and you’ve got to stay positive. It was a big process, but, yeah, I had to stay positive. My wife was big for me there and I gotta give a hand to her as well. And also my teammates were really positive with me and just supported me. They know the player I am, they know what I can do, and they trust me.”

With the way the Canadiens played, they could’ve won 10-1. They probably would’ve if not for Vancouver’s Thatcher Demko, who put up one of the best performances you’ll ever see from a goaltender who allowed five goals.

This was a throttling from the Canadiens, who improved their record to 12-6-7, allowing them to maintain the third-best points percentage in the North Division. It was as close to the perfect game Dominique Ducharme has been coaching them toward since he took over from Claude Julien on Feb. 24. Carey Price made 24 saves and the team in front of him made the most of changes implemented by the coach before the puck dropped.

Everyone in the right chair

It’s a clear-cut top-six, with every player belonging, and the Canadiens look like a different team in the offensive zone because of it.

Ducharme opted to reunite Josh Anderson with Nick Suzuki and Jonathan Drouin, and Brendan Gallagher slid to the right of Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Tyler Toffoli. That dropped Joel Armia to a third line with Danault and Tomas Tatar, and left Paul Byron and Jake Evans with Corey Perry.

The Canadiens reaped the rewards all game because of it — particularly in a tone-setting first period.

They rolled over the Canucks in the opening frame, outscoring them 1-0, out-shooting them 16-4 and edging them in shot attempts 29-7. On top of that, they drew two power plays by holding onto pucks and executing perfectly on what Toffoli outlined as a strategy prior to the game.

“I think we’re trying to put a lot more pressure on them, create more turnovers,” Montreal’s leading goal scorer said. “If we have possession of the puck and everything, teams are bound to get their sticks on us and grab us a little bit.”

It’s something the Canadiens hadn’t done enough of prior to this game, which is part of the reason they were 27th in the NHL in drawing power plays. Even under Ducharme, with their system trending toward being more aggressive, they had drawn just 11 power plays in six games.

They drew five in the game Wednesday. And they may have only scored one on the power play, but it certainly would’ve generated more if not for Demko, who was brilliant on the penalty kill — and in every other situation.

But the Canadiens’ power play created the momentum for Kotkaniemi to open the scoring at 5-on-5 at the end of a shift that he, Toffoli and Gallagher dominated. It created the momentum for a dominant shift in the second period and came through later when Shea Weber blasted one home to make it 3-1.

Drouin, Suzuki and Anderson had it going on at 5-on-5. The Kotkaniemi line created momentum for the Danault line to thrive in more favourable matchups, and each of those two lines controlled over 92 per cent of the shot attempts through the first 40 minutes.

It gave the Evans line momentum to capitalize early in the second period when Perry hit the board to make it 2-0 on a play that started with Evans stretching the ice from his own zone.

Byron made a great play on the 2-on-1 that ensued to give Perry his fourth goal of the season.

In the third, the Canadiens got one from Danault, and one from Jeff Petry, who now leads all NHL defencemen with 10 goals.

One last note on the line changes Ducharme made, he went with Byron, Danault and Anderson together off the opening draw just to get the Canadiens jumpstarted with three of their most energetic players. A crafty move that paid dividends, even if it didn’t generate a goal.

Weber’s unit finally came through

On Tuesday, we spoke with Alex Burrows, former Vancouver Canucks super-pest who now runs Montreal’s power play as Ducharme’s assistant coach. Burrows expressed a clear vision for how to optimize having Weber on a unit that wasn’t working at all.

“Shea’s got one of the best shots in the league or the best one-timer I’ve seen,” said Burrows. “He’s a weapon, for sure, on your unit. Teams' PKs are going to shadow him as much as they can so they don’t let that shot come out. For me, I have different (formations) and Shea, when he’s on the flank, I’d love to see him tee it off every time he has a chance. If we’re able to tee it up for him, that would be a great play.”

In order to get Weber to that spot, you need to hound the puck and force the penalty killers to another area of the ice. That’s what Anderson, Suzuki and Toffoli did, recovering the puck for Drouin, who sent a perfect pass over to Weber for the goal.

They had shown some of that same intensity on Montreal’s first power play of the game. They built on it and scored their first goal under Burrows, who took over when Kirk Muller was fired along with Julien.

Down a D

There was just under five minutes left in the first when Ben Chiarot decided to take a fight offer from J.T. Miller.

They had been in a matchup against each other going back to Monday’s 2-1 shootout loss for the Canadiens, this was the sixth game between Vancouver and Montreal, and the animosity had clearly boiled over.

Now, if you thought Chiarot had no reason to take that fight with the Canadiens in full control of the period, that’s understandable. But with the Canucks missing top centre Elias Pettersson, and with Miller serving as a fill-in at the position, that’s far from a bad tradeoff for Chiarot for five minutes.

Unfortunately for him, he hurt his hand with a haymaker to Miller’s face and was gone for the remaining 45.

In his absence, the Canadiens got a look at Brett Kulak, Joel Edmundson and Alexander Romanov with Weber. They can opt to continue with the experiment with one of them joining Weber Thursday in Calgary, or they can plug Victor Mete right in there.

With the Montreal blue line deeper, and with no injuries there to date, Mete, who’s played 176 NHL games, has only appeared in five of their 25 games this season. But he’s also played just under half his ice time in the NHL as Weber’s partner, and the pair has generated positive numbers in every key 5-on-5 category — from owning a 51.91 per cent of the shot attempts to producing 54.55 per cent of the expected goals to scoring 50 goals and only allowing 40.

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