The Canadiens are in an interesting position, heading back to enemy territory for a pivotal Game 5.
On one hand, the Habs have been unlucky. If not for a five minute, Game 2 breakdown, and Thursday night's coin toss, the Canadiens could easily be in Montreal right now, waiting for the winner of the Penguins and Rangers. Conversely, some might consider the Canadiens, who are ready to embark on a best-of-three series with the President's Trophy winners, to be fortunate to be in this position. Perspective aside, the Canadiens have to find a way to win at least one game in Boston if they wish to move on to the Conference Finals. That challenge begins this evening, with Game 5 at the TD Garden.
The elephant in the room is Douglas Murray, a player whose playoff plight has been covered extensively, both at EOTP and elsewhere. To summarize, since subbing in for Francis Bouillon, Murray has continued to allow the Habs to get tuned up by the Bruins third line, while offering nothing at the other end. If the Habs choose to include Murray in their lineup this evening, the problems the Habs faced in Montreal will only be amplified as Claude Julien exploits last change.
Of course, while the Habs' decision to ice Murray for Games 3 and 4 was less than savvy, the Habs did make a critical innovation that should help to protect them against last change. By splitting up Thomas Vanek and Max Pacioretty, the Canadiens have created two lines more dangerous than the loaded up 67-51-20 line that started the series together. While that line included the Habs' two best wingers, they also made themselves an easy target, as Julien managed to put Chara on the ice for more than 80% of Pacioretty's shifts in Game 1. That number dipped to 26% in Game 4, and while home ice will allow the Bruins' bench boss a better opportunity to increase that number somewhat, the Habs are definitely better off having diversified their portfolio. Tuukka Rask has stopped 19 Pacioretty shots so far this series, so Wolverine is due for a goal or two by now. The Habs need their best scorer to strike if they're to have a chance to advance.
Improved productivity from the Habs' top six is one tool that Montreal can use to overcome a third pair that's almost certain to give up more than it pushes back. The other untapped resource to consider might be the ice time of the players who are already playing well, especially P.K. Subban and Josh Gorges. The Habs top pair have been on fire all playoffs, but have been especially effective against the Bruins. The Canadiens are lucky that one member of their dynamic duo, Carey Price, already sees sixty minutes of ice every night. With the stakes rising, and any ice time not occupied by Subban liable to be consumed by a defender far less capable, it may be time for Michel Therrien to ramp up his catalyst's time on ice. The 30:14 averaged by Alex Pietrangelo, during St. Louis' six-game series with Chicago, would be a good place to start.
The Canadiens are guaranteed to return to Montreal, offering a small measure of flexibility in tonight's affair. Whether they do clinging to their playoff lives, or looking to finish off their bitter rivals, will be determined this evening.