Montreal Canadiens Head Coach Michel Therrien shuffled his lines, both up front and on the back end last night against the Edmonton Oilers, and was rewarded with the Habs best game of the young season, and a 4-1 victory.
The Canadiens young line of Lars Eller, Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher was clearly driving the offense in the Habs first three games. The line had scored seven of the team’s first nine goals, and though they were performing extremely well, the Habs other two offensive lines were silent.
Therrien took a risk by breaking up the EGG line, but rewarded Eller with more than twenty minutes of ice time, and Gallagher and Galchenyuk did not miss a beat with a new center. The two sophomores were centered by veteran Tomas Plekanec, while Eller would be flanked by Max Pacioretty and Daniel Briere. This left David Desharnais centering Rene Bourque and Brian Gionta.
The result was three lines that all produced several chances, and kept the suspect Oilers defense on their heels throughout the game. Even the fourth line of Michael Bournival with Travis Moen and Brandon Prust combined for eight shots on net, and a Brandon Prust goal that proved to be the game winner.
Galchenyuk and Gallagher both found the back of the net, and Pacioretty ice things with an empty netter that was set up by an unselfish Briere feed. It was the usual suspects getting points, but it was the pressure applied by all four lines, and not having an ineffective line dragging the momentum down, that really led to this win.
The balanced lineup broke up the ineffective duo of Desharnais and Briere, who combined for zero points through the opening three games. The move did not magically turn the diminutive pair to offensive wizardry immediately, but Desharnais’ effectiveness in the faceoff circle, paired with veterans Bourque and Gionta, made for a trio that could be trusted in all situations.
The most effective move that Therrien made was to change his defensive pairings. He (finally) moved Andrei Markov onto a pairing with P.K. Subban, which left Josh Gorges with Raphael Diaz and of course babysitter Francis Bouillon with youngster Nathan Beaulieu, who was making his season debut. Bouillon has almost exclusively been paired with the youngest defenseman in the lineup since he returned to the Canadiens a season ago.
The Markov-Subban pairing really drove the offense for the Canadiens last night, proven by Subban’s three assist evening. They can both effectively skate or pass the puck out of their own end, and are the two best offensive defensemen on the team. Markov has been subject to ridicule for his defensive game, but Subban’s underrated defensive side balances the pairing out, and could make them one of the best pairings in the league.
The Gorges-Diaz pairing is a typical puck mover-shutdown defender marriage that is very effective in the NHL. Diaz is prone to a bad pinch or turnover, and needs a stabilizer with him, and he did not have that with Markov during the first three games. Gorges makes a good partner for Subban, his original partner, but Therrien separating the two finally shows he is beginning to trust what Subban can do defensively.
The third pairing of Beaulieu with Bouillon is yet another offensive-defensive balance. Beaulieu showed off his speed and exceptional offensive instincts last night, but is young and still has a lot to learn when he does not have the puck. Bouillon is the savvy veteran who makes an effective pairing for the green puck mover.
It was a few subtle moves that shook the lines up, but it made for a much more balanced attack from the Canadiens, and it paid off with the team’s best performance of the season. It was difficult to fathom that this was the same team that stumbled through a 3-2 defeat to the Calgary Flames just one night prior.
Michel Therrien took a lot of heat during the first few games for not switching his lines. He did on Thursday, and deserves a lot of credit for the Canadiens first road victory of the season.