Claude Julien had hinted at changes after an offensively lacklustre performance from the Montreal Canadiens in Game 2, so onlookers may have been somewhat disappointed when the only lineup alteration at puck-drop was the insertion of Jake Evans for Jordan Weal. Julien’s patience seemed to pay off when Shea Weber opened the scoring, but by the first intermission, the head coach was tasked with coaxing a moribund team back to life.
As the second period started and the Canadiens continued to show no signs of vitality, Julien began his experimentations. First, Phillip Danault had hit the ice with Artturi Lehkonen and Paul Byron to close off the first period, ostensibly to exit the frame only down by one. Julien kept this trio and hard-matched them to Sidney Crosby’s line to neutralize the Pittsburgh Penguins’ most dynamic threat.
Danault’s now-vacated position on the first line was filled by Nick Suzuki. Suzuki, along with Joel Armia and Jonathan Drouin, had been put on the back foot by Evgeni Malkin’s line through most of the first two games. Moving the creative youngster next to Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher gave the centre more leeway to create offensively while still having enough steel to counter Malkin.
Finally, Armia and Drouin moved alongside Jesperi Kotkaniemi, arguably the Canadiens’ best forward of the series. Kotkaniemi had been somewhat sheltered to this point, but now Julien gave him more offensive-minded linemates than Byron and Lehkonen and set the trio loose against Jack Johnson and Justin Schultz. It was this move that set the Canadiens’ comeback in motion. Kotkaniemi beat Malkin on a defensive-zone faceoff, and as the play developed, Drouin escaped from Schultz’s clutches to tip in Ben Chiarot’s point shot.
Statistically, Julien’s moves may not appear all that impressive on the surface. Lehkonen, Danault, and Byron clocked an unimpressive 25% Corsi-for percentage in just under seven minutes of five-on-five ice time. However, going beyond shot attempts, the newly minted shutdown trio limited their esteemed opposition to only a single shot on target.
Moving Suzuki with Gallagher and Tatar resulted in a line that could establish near parity from a possession perspective, a significant improvement from the 34% CF% put up by Drouin-Suzuki-Armia in the first two games. Again, when the situation called for low-event hockey, Suzuki’s new line delivered, allowing only three shots against in six-and-a-half minutes of five-on-five ice time.
Finally, now with offensive support, Kotkaniemi shifted from low-event to high-event hockey, keeping Pittsburgh’s bottom six honest and making it difficult for Mike Sullivan to hide the weaker portions of his roster.
The greatest testament to the effect of Julien’s moves is that elements of all four lines factored into the Canadiens’ comeback. Kotkaniemi’s line gave the Habs life, Suzuki tallied an assist on the equalizer as a power play ended, Domi drew the Zach Aston-Reese roughing minor that would eventually lead to Jeff Petry’s game winner, and it was the Danault line that held the play in the Pittsburgh zone so that Petry could unleash his rocket.
It took a period and a deficit, but Claude Julien decisively offered his reply to Sullivan’s adjustments in Game 2. Now, what Canadiens team will we see in Game 4?