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Canadiens’ new lines are trying to develop chemistry on the fly

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The switches helped Montreal win their series, but the players still have a lot of new tendencies to learn.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images

I never expected Claude Julien to move Phillip Danault away from Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar. His prized first line won him more than a few games in the past two seasons. It consistently ranked among the best lines in the league on many different metrics (Corsi-for percentage and expected goals), and on any given night the trio was just as effective at generating offence as shutting down the opposition.

Usually coaches stick to the formulas that brought them success in the past, sometimes even to a fault, keeping them long after that success has stopped. We saw an example of that with Mike Sullivan and his third defensive pair. In this same series, however, Julien showed adaptability.

The execution of Julien’s first line faltered. Maybe it was due to their matchup against one of the best players in the world in Sidney Crosby, or the months spent apart, but numbers 11, 24, and 90 couldn’t put their hold on the game like they usually do. They didn’t hurt the Montreal Canadiens’ chances of winning, but weren’t exactly carrying the team toward the finish line either.

So the head coach shuffled his lines. He swapped the wingers of his top two lines and switched Jonathan Drouin and Paul Byron, thus giving more punch to the third line and more shutdown potential to Danault’s (a move I suggested in an article last week).

Well, hockey being the ironic sport that we all know and love, the “shutdown’’ line was the one that ended up scoring the series-winning goal. Sometimes, discipline and patience are the keys to finding the best scoring opportunities, and Danault, Byron , and Artturi Lehkonen proved it.

Matched against Evgeni Malkin more often than not, the trio set trap after trap to stop the approach of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ scoring behemoth. By playing safe or a bit higher than usual in the F3 position, they caught the stretching attacker that the Pens often use in their zone exits and prevented Malkin from breaking out with speed. When Pittsburgh’s second line managed to gain the neutral zone anyway, a close backcheck rapidly forced it to the outside or into criss-crossing patterns that lost them speed.

Simply put, the stalling tactics of the Danault line put Malkin to sleep and then kept him dormant.

The defensive-minded trio did the same thing when Pittsburgh tried to regroup. They angled their counter-attack to one side of the ice and suffocated it on that half. When the opponents tried to widen their approach, the second line countered by filling all corridors in the neutral zone and stopping the Pittsburgh approach dead in its tracks.

In the defensive zone, Danault had clearly given himself the mission to stop his counterpart from making plays as quickly as he could. One sequence in particular stood out. Danault attached himself to Malkin as they both jumped on the ice and descended into the Habs’ zone. With a few shoulder-checks, he made sure his opponent didn’t get lost behind him. Danault kept inside positioning, remaining between his man and the net, which put him in prime position in a race to a loose puck on the back wall.

The Habs centreman didn’t take a direct route to that puck. He approached the disc in an arc, cutting off the path of Malkin on the retrieval and bodying him out of the play. Danault’s savvy defensive manouevre drew a penalty.

Finally, late in the game, the line’s discipline paid off. Lehkonen and Byron forechecked in the Penguins’ zone, while Danault stayed high as F3. His presence at the top of the zone allowed Ben Chiarot to pinch down and force Brandon Tanev on the wall to rush his breakout pass. As Lehkonen reloaded in the middle of the ice in preparation for a backcheck, he intercepted the puck and fed it to Byron, who packaged a goal for his partner.

We won’t know until the next round if these new combinations will hold up against the Habs’ next opponent. The Philadelphia Flyers have more depth than the Penguins and they might overwhelm the spread-out talent of Montreal.

That being said, as chemistry seemed to have already formed between the three elements of the new line, it’s an experiment the coaching staff should likely continue heading into next week’s contests. A line which has a main goal of numbing opponents might not create game-long excitement, but timely goals will more than make up for it.

As for Nick Suzuki’s line, it seems to still be adjusting. Suzuki is a different player from Danault; a more cerebral, but less energetic one. He is also less net-focused. At times in Game 4, Gallagher and Tatar either rimmed the puck around the boards, expecting Suzuki to engage in a battle to extend possession, or looked to send a pass toward the cage for a tip-in, but the centreman had had other ideas, moving into space to stretch the ice and look to control the puck.

And Suzuki also had trouble locking himself to the rhythm of his wingers. On a rush in Game 3, the centreman dropped the puck to Tatar behind him inside space, but Tatar had already accelerated toward the net, expecting Suzuki to send the puck there, like Danault would have. He ended up over-skating the pass and the shot pocket.

The new trio will need time to tune up its play, but it also represents a worthy experiment. The players could find great chemistry due to their complementary nature. Danault’s style ressembles the ones of Tatar and Gallagher, and that’s why the trio was so successful. However, Suzuki brings a playmaking touch that was missing from the previous spearhead line of the Habs. The original trio could always generate shots, but their playbook was limited. With some time, Suzuki could bring different strategies and establish more of a control style of offence. He could be a breath of fresh air.

Of course, those are all theories. When the puck drops, the game always unfolds in unexpected ways. It will again be on the coaches to find the right adjustments. The good news is that the Canadiens’ staff proved against the Penguins that they are willing to make the necessary changes to maximize the strength of their players.