For one last time in the 2013-14 NHL season, the Canadiens are shipping up to Boston. In Game 6, the Habs continued the trend of Montreal and Boston defending their home ice effectively, as both teams have gone 2-1 at their own rink. Now, the Canadiens will have to show that they can break the trend they've helped to persist.
The Habs made a crucial adjustment heading into Game 6, subbing in the speedy and skilled Nathan Beaulieu to rejuvenate their defence. The decision resonated with positive results in all aspects of the game, and with the decisive game in this series to be settled with the Bruins enjoying last change, that move is about to become even more significant.
Even when Montreal was winning in this series, their third pair was consistently getting torn apart by their Boston opposition. The former first round pick changed that on Tuesday, carrying a strong 58.3% of all shot attempts when he was on the ice. Beaulieu's fluid skill-set is an excellent complement to his partner, Mike Weaver's, and their chemistry showed as Montreal's fourth line and third pair ate up Boston's.
Beaulieu earned just under two minutes of powerplay time, giving the Canadiens the rare opportunity be effective with the man advantage when Andrei Markov was not on the ice. He even had the good fortune to factor in on Montreal's first two goals, watching Lars Eller capitalize on a Kevan Miller error before launching a hail mary pass that turned into a Max Pacioretty breakaway goal. Beaulieu was a catalyst for offence and puck possession at the bottom of the lineup, and after two consecutive games where the Habs had difficulty scoring, Beaulieu was a factor in their turn-around.
Heading into what will be an overwhelming TD Garden, the presence of a reliable third pair in the visiting lineup becomes even more important. In Games 2 and 5, where the Habs were unsuccessful in Boston, Michel Therrien tried two different strategies to manage the bottom of his D corps. In Game 2, Weaver and one of his previous partners, Francis Bouillon, were given cushy zone starts but also tasked with often facing the Bruins' best, and subsequently found themselves ending their shifts back in their own end more often than not. In Game 5, Therrien went the opposite route, giving Weaver and Douglas Murray tough zone starts against the Bruins third and fourth lines. The result of that experiment was the bottom of the Bruins' lineup outscoring their Habs' counterparts, an unfavourable scenario for a Habs team that's counting on their depth to push the same aggressive game plan that the top of their lineup is tasked with.
Therrien will likely shelter his third pairing with offensive zone starts as much as possible, and with Beaulieu manning the point, the Canadiens' will have the chance to score during these sequences, rather than just attempting to survive as they might otherwise. Given Claude Julien's preference to play Marchand-Bergeron-Smith with Chara-Hamilton against Pacioretty and his linemates, this may mean that the question of whether 40-43 backing 67-51-11 can stop the Bruins top possession players from pushing the play to Montreal's end will become fundamental to the outcome of tonight's affair. If the Habs can play this potential match-up to a draw, it would give P.K. Subban or Markov the opportunity to turn the game by generating some offence against the Bruins' vulnerable third pair. Regardless of which Canadiens forward line joins them in this quest, the odds of getting Carey Price some critical goals in this situation would seem to be in Montreal's favour.
All season long, Montreal has struggled with tactics and deployment, playing lineups weaker than they could be in systems that don't fit the team's strengths. With Therrien's return to an aggressive two-man forecheck, and the addition of players like Vanek, Weise, Weaver, and Beaulieu to the lineup, those problems finally no longer exist. The Habs' window to the Stanley Cup is more open, right now, than it's been in years, and probably decades. Tonight, on hostile ice against their biggest rivals, it's time for the Montreal Canadiens to show the hockey world what they're made of.