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It’s early days, but the Canadiens need to keep a close eye on their third line

An abysmal night statistically in Toronto represents a major anomaly in Brendan Gallagher’s resume.

Montreal Canadiens v Winnipeg Jets - Game One Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images

As the final horn sounded at Scotiabank Arena signifying the end of the Montreal Canadiens’ first game of the season, Brendan Gallagher found himself with an unfamiliar number next to his name on the stats sheet.

A 24.2% on-ice five-on-five expected goals-for percentage (xGF%)

This was not a product of low raw counts. At five-on-five, Gallagher was on the ice for 0.92 xGA, fourth-worst among Canadiens forwards.

As a member of one of the league’s best possession- and chance-driving trios for the last few years, an on-ice goals-for-percentage value in the 20s is alien to Gallagher’s resume. It represents his lowest single-game xGF% since March 10, 2020; the last game played in 2019-20. Indeed, Gallagher has posted a sub-25% value only three times since the start of the 2018-19 campaign:

Obviously, it is far too early to jump to any conclusions from the results of a single game. Nonetheless, the Canadiens would do well to keep a watchful eye on Gallagher and the other members of the third line. After all, the only forwards who posted worse xGF% numbers in the season-opener against Toronto were Gallagher’s linemates, Jake Evans and Joel Armia.

Key to note, Armia, Evans, and Gallagher not only stuck out on a night where their teammates largely held their own, they were not buried by John Tavares and Mitch Marner. Instead, they were outperformed by a combination of the Leafs’ Alexander Kerfoot-led second line and their third-line counterparts in blue and white: Pierre Engvall, David Kampf, and Ondrej Kase. Perhaps worst of all, the trio put up complete goose eggs against the Leafs’ third defensive pairing of Rasmus Sandin and Travis Dermott: 0-13 shot attempts, 0-7 shots, (6 high-danger), and 0-0.84 xGF.

Again, it’s only a single game, but in an off-season of great transition, it is this third trio that has the most to overcome. Nick Suzuki’s line can ride their playoff experiences. Jonathan Drouin and Josh Anderson played together for much of last season. But Gallagher, Evans, and Armia are strangers to one another, outside of a brief stint where Evans played as a winger next to Gallagher and Phillip Danault.

There is logic in this trio. Of the players not cemented into the top six, Evans and Armia best fit the archetypes of the departed Danault and Tomas Tatar. However, the Canadiens must keep a close eye on this experiment, because they cannot afford to turn Brendan Gallagher — one of the league’s best offensive drivers — into a liability in their forward corps.