The Montreal Canadiens are in deep.
They've been in deep before. There was the ominous signs of a late 2013 winning streak that was entirely predicated on luck. There was the subsequent losing streak, when the luck ran out and the fans did, too. Rock bottom came in early February, when the Habs race to bottom ground to a halt with their possession numbers firmly in Maple Leafs territory. Fans and pundits alike condemned the Canadiens' season, doubting that the Habs would ever have the chance to experience the adversity that they're enduring now.
Of course, some of that doubt was ultimately proven to be unfounded, as time and talent soothed what ailed the Habs of earlier this year. The Habs made some important acquisitions at the trade deadline, enhancing an already talented lineup. They committed themselves to the puck possession style of hockey that made them successful last year, building momentum and solidifying their playoff position in the process. Mostly importantly, Carey Price was consistently outstanding, smoothing over the rough patches and allowing the Habs the flexibility they needed to find their way.
Tonight, the Habs need to find a way to fight back without the benefit of so much time and talent. The Habs' great equalizer, their goaltender, is no longer available to go toe-to-toe with a red hot Henrik Lundqvist. Time, meanwhile, has never been so scarce, as another loss before the Canadiens return to Montreal will almost certainly spell the end of their season.
Unfortunately, a complete breakdown of the indomitable Lundqvist is mostly out of the Habs' control, and suggestions that the Habs exact their pound of flesh from him range from barbaric to distasteful. The Canadiens have dominated territorially in two games so far, and their only real option is continue, maximizing their scoring chances along the way.
With the GDP (Gallagher-Desharnais-Pacioretty, from right wing to left) humming, the Habs seem to have a go-to line that can earn them some zone time in New York's end whenever they're put on the ice. That group accomplished the unheard of feat of near-90% possession in Game 2, and did so while starting the defensive zone on a healthy proportion of their shifts.
When Pittsburgh and New York played Game 4 of Round 2 at Madison Square Garden, the Penguins loaded Crosby, Malkin, and Kunitz onto the same line and let them go to work on the Rangers. The result was two goals with that group on the ice, near 80% corsi, and a Pittsburgh win. While there's an obvious talent difference between that Pittsburgh and what Montreal can offer, GDP does represent a significant proportion of Montreal's offensive talent. Alain Vigneault showed in Game 4, and again in Game 6, that he's not interested in playing the match-up game, instead allowing a committee of his best defenders to each take time against his opponent's best. In Round 2, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, and Ryan McDonagh had no answer for the Penguins super-line, with only Henrik Lundqvist able to shut the door. With the Habs employing a similar strategy to their predecessors, it'll be interesting to see if the Rangers continue to let their best defencemen bleed shots at even strength.
Otherwise, and as has been the case in both Games 1 and 2 of Round 3, the Habs need their depth to help pick up the scoring slack. The Bourque-Eller-Gionta trio has been consistently good for a few scoring chances per game, and with a few lineup configuration changes, the Habs' other two lines may be able to match their pace. It's high time that Michael Bournival, for example, be granted his permanent spot in the lineup over Brandon Prust. Thomas Vanek is another Canadien who needs a change, and whether injured or just sluggish, it's clear that he needs an easier path or he needs to sit. Andrew covered this topic in greater detail yesterday, and of the options proposed, I favour the idea of an all-offence line of Vanek, Galchenyuk, and Briere that Therrien would start in the offensive zone against the Rangers' fourth liners. The remaining group of Plekanec, Bournival, and Dale Weise, would form an all-defence, almost sacrificial line to check the Rangers' scorers, a task to which Vanek has proved ill-suited.
As the Canadiens enter the most important game of 2013-14, they know that time and talent is running shorter than their used to. That makes tonight, even more than usual, about the Habs controlling what they can control. If the Habs are to move on, or at least climb back into this series, everything else will fall into place.