Will the Canadiens’ lack of offensive punch be their season-ending roadblock?

David Amber and Elliotte Friedman discuss the Tampa Bay Lightning and their Game 3 victory over the Montreal Canadiens and how special it was coming back to Montreal for the Stanley Cup but will be difficult beating Tampa in four straight.

On Friday night Phillip Danault scored his first goal of the playoffs in his 20th game, a run of time that’s seen him play 18:45 seconds per contest, which is a total well north of six hours of total ice time. That’s the most ice time of any forward on the team not named Nick Suzuki, who’s played all of five seconds more per game than the Habs pizza-munching defensive centre.

In that time, Suzuki has scored seven times and put up 15 points, which is a point-per-game average of 0.75, which is just inside the playoffs’ top-20 list among players who’ve played at least 10 post-season games. The point is, it’s good, but it’s not huge offensive output. And Danault trails him by 11 points.

But you know that – Danault’s job has been to be a shut-down centre, full-stop, and so the case can be made that it’s disingenuous to point out his utter lack of offence. After all, he’s excelled at shutting down the opposition’s top centres. Auston Matthews only had five points in seven games, the Winnipeg Jets didn’t really have a top centre after Mark Schiefele got suspended (their big-name wingers were limited though), and Mark Stone was undeniably shut all the way the heck down. He’s been great in his role.

Two things on Danault, and the bigger Habs picture.

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One is that this is relevant because he’s not Sami Pahlsson, some third-line centre the Habs are only deploying to shut down the opposition until their all-star scorers can get back on the ice. He’s out there in the top-six with Brendan Gallagher, one of the teams’ few true offensive weapons. That “offensive weapon,” by the way, has two goals and four assists in 20 games alongside him and Artturi Lehkonen.

It’s not Danault’s fault that he’s not deployed in a more Pahlsson-like fashion (instead of something more comparable to a true 1C), nor is it exactly his coaches’ fault, because who else should they put in that spot? It’s just reflective of a Habs shortcoming that he’s not able to be used the way he seems perfectly tailored to being used: farther down the lineup in fewer, more hyper-specific defensive minutes.

The second thing is that it’s not just instructive of where the Habs lineup is weak – its overall offensive punch – but it’s also reflective of their lineup as a whole. They have players who see real minutes who are reliable all throughout the group, and some who pop up for a goal here and there, but few players are exactly expected to score.

Yes, they can be viewed as “built for the playoffs,” and it’s inarguably gone well for them with this group this season. They can be patient and reliably in position and keep the game close and minimize mistakes. But when it comes time to score, they’re kinda left to look around and wonder “Who’s job is it to do that, exactly?”

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I guess Cole Caufield’s?

I’m reflecting on that today not just as some epiphany, but because, when contrasted with Tampa Bay — an extraordinarily well-constructed team — it’s a clear shortcoming. And we’re not holding the Habs to the standard of the rest of the league here. They’re knocking on the door of a Stanley Cup, so I think it’s fair to highlight where they lack when stacked up against the best.

The Bolts also have defensively-sound players throughout their lineup, those who see real minutes who are reliable all throughout the group. But almost to a man, there’s offensive upside that underlies each position. And we’re talking about bottom-six guys here.

Their shut-down group of Blake ColemanYanni GourdeBarclay Goodrow was on pace for regular-season point totals of 46-52-30 points, respectively, which is marginally better than the regular-season paces of the Artturi Lehkonen-Danault-Gallagher group (23-37-54, respectively). That’s Tampa’s third line.

Did you know Mathieu Joseph was on pace to score 18 this season? Did you know that Ross Colton was on pace for 25, scoring nine times in just 30 games? (It’s a lot to presume he would’ve kept that up, but he has scored in bunches at other levels.) The guy they put on waivers twice who toiled in their bottom six – Tyler Johnson – has a couple seasons around 30 goals in the NHL (the last was recent, in 2019), skills which he flashed in scoring twice to put the Lightning over the top in Game 3. Usually from your bottom-six goals are gravy, but Tampa Bay can count on some.

Those names above, all six guys mentioned in the previous two paragraphs, would tell you that while they like to and want to contribute offensively, their primary objective on this Lightning team is to be reliable defensively by being hard on the opposition, fast, and persistent. They have the luxury of not having to score thanks to their place in the lineup, even though they have the ability to do it at times.

It’s a lot harder for me to look at a line in a team’s top-six and say they don’t need to score, and to qualify success is simply stopping the other team from scoring.

Danault has garnered Selke Trophy votes for years now, and the players who play as well as him defensively and score? They’re all-stars, hall-of-famers, they’re Selke Trophy winners, they’re franchise cornerstones. They’re Patrice Bergeron, they’re Ryan O’Reilly, they’re Jonathan Toews, they’re Anze Kopitar.

Nobody is saying Danault is that. He wasn’t (and won’t be) paid to be that, and it may be unfair to expect that of him.

But that doesn’t mean we should ignore the greater story it tells us about this Canadiens lineup, which can defend and compete like hell. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts because of belief and team play and of course, goaltending, and for that, they should be lauded. But it’s not just Danault. It’s a team that finished just in the bottom half of the league in regular-season goals. Finding “pop” has been a problem.

That story it tells us, which is being highlighted in the Final, is simply that you have to be able to win a number of ways to beat a number of teams to win hockey’s greatest prize. In Game 3, the Habs lost for the first time when they scored two or more goals in the entire post-season to date, having previously been 11-0. That’s pretty insane. Up until now, it’s been OK to just defend their way to victory.

On their way here, the Lightning scored two or more goals in 18 of 21 games. They hung six on the Florida Panthers one night, six on the Carolina Hurricanes one night, and eight on the New York Islanders another. They got another six on Friday.

Against a Tampa Bay team that scores like they do, Montreal has been asked to try to win a different way, and that’s by scoring with the best of them. That may not be a tool this Habs team has in their bag four times in seven games.

The Lightning are just so well-rounded, it’s hard to see a way out for the Habs. We’ve said that before, of course, and nothing is over until it’s over. But if you’re a Habs fan now and think it’s unfair to levy criticism around the teams’ lack of offensive punch, well to that, I’d say you’re being awfully defensive.


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