Montreal Canadiens: Lack of First Line Scoring Should Lead to “Outside the Box” Lines

MONTREAL, QC - FEBRUARY 27: Montreal Canadiens (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
MONTREAL, QC - FEBRUARY 27: Montreal Canadiens (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images) /

The Montreal Canadiens are tied with the Pittsburgh Penguins at one game apiece in their play-in series.

The Montreal Canadiens had a regular season to forget in 2019-20. They played 71 games, lost eight in a row on two separate occasions, and ended up 24th in the league standings with 71 points. It wasn’t ideal, but they did just make it into the league’s play-in qualifier series.

Not a lot went right for the Habs. About the only thing they could count on all year long was consistent, reliable, two-way play from their first line. Phillip Danault was the centre between Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher and the trio was the best possession line in hockey this season.

Their shot differential showed they generated shots at a far greater clip than they allowed them. When you combine that with the fact they usually had Carey Price in net behind them, they far outplayed their opponents on a nightly basis. This is even more impressive when you consider that this line was given the toughest assignments defensively all year long as well.

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The only downside to this line, is they don’t turn all their attempts at the net into a lot of goals. Tatar and Gallagher had good offensive seasons, but the trio is far from the best offensive line when it comes to putting pucks in the net. They can defend, they can control the puck and they can fire it towards the net more often than anyone else in hockey. But they aren’t the highest scoring line in the world.

Tatar had a career year and finished the regular season with 61 points in 68 games. Gallagher scored 22 goals in 59 games which had him on course for another 30 goal campaign. Danault tied a career high with 13 goals and was second on the team with 47 points.

So, the three of them had solid numbers in the regular season, though a good team probably gets more than 13 goals out of its first line centre.

With the Habs now in a Best-of-5 play-in series with the Pittsburgh Penguins, they have no margin for error. There is no time to wait for players to kick it into top gear. There is no time for players to struggle for a few games before they get going. The Habs were able to come out of Game 1 with an overtime victory before falling to the Pens 3-1 in Game 2.

There is no question that the Penguins have carried the play for the majority of the two games, but Carey Price has been remarkable. Still, with Price playing at his best, the Canadiens came away with a narrow victory and then lost. They need everyone to be sharp if they are going to win two more of the next three against the Penguins.

That is why, and it might sound crazy, but it is time to break up the top line. Yes, it was the only line we could consistently count on in the regular season, but where exactly did that get the Habs? 24th in the standings. I think it is okay to shake things up a bit and hope for better.

Tatar, Gallagher and Danault have combined for zero goals so far in the postseason. Tatar has been held pointless through two games, while Danault and Gallagher both assists on Jeff Petry’s overtime winner in Game 1. Obviously that was a huge goal, but it was a broken play that bounced to Petry who made a great move around a sliding defender before his wrist shot beat Matt Murray. Danault and Gallagher gained the zone on the rush, but didn’t really do much to create the goal.

The Habs need more from their top line and in a short series like this, have no time to wait for it. With the Canadiens getting last change in the next two games, it is time to change things up dramatically and try to find an advantage against the Pens.

Tatar hasn’t been on the scoresheet yet in the postseason, but scored in the exhibition game. It was just an exhibition game but it was a goal reminiscent of what we saw many times in the regular season – Nick Suzuki setting up Tatar for an easy goal.

Why don’t we try that combination at even strength? Danault is a terrific defensive centre who will likely finish in the top five on the Frank J. Selke voting for league’s best defensive forward. He does okay offensively, but isn’t the first line centre that can take over games.

While Suzuki deserves a bit of a promotion, Max Domi needs to be moved from the fourth line. He has been shackled to Dale Weise and Jordan Weal for this series and can’t possibly be expected to create any offence in that role. I’d move him right up to the top line with Tatar and Suzuki. Putting Domi and Suzuki on the same line allows two of the team’s weaker face-off guys to only take draws on their strong side. Domi is a left shot and Suzuki is a right shot, so if the face-off is on the left side of the ice, Domi takes it and if not, Suzuki takes it. I would play this line against Evgeni Malkin’s line as much as possible.

This of course, would push Gallagher down to the second line. I’d give Jesperi Kotkaniemi that second line centre position and have him play with Jonathan Drouin and Gallagher. Drouin’s biggest criticism if he is a perimeter player who doesn’t like to work in the dirty areas. I think that is a tad overblown, but if there is any truth to it at all, why not just put Gallagher on his line and let him do the heavier lifting? Drouin is still a great skater and stickhandler who can carry the puck up ice and create plays with his passing. Gallagher can score from the top of the crease, he just needs Drouin to get him the puck in tight. This line would also be given more offensive opportunities and would be kept away from Crosby and Malkin as often as possible.

That would make the third line Danault’s line. His wingers would be Paul Byron and Joel Armia. With last change and control of the matchups, this line would play pretty much every time Sidney Crosby steps on the ice in Game 3 and 4. They would be an excellent shutdown line and could provide some offence as well. I mean, the three of them are capable of creating scoring chances when they are short-handed, so why not give them a chance at even strength?

The Canadiens fourth line then would have Artturi Lehkonen, but instead of Weal or Weise, I would just put in Ryan Poehling and Jake Evans. Again, the Habs control the matchups for the next two games, so get the younger forwards in and give them some sheltered minutes. They would gain very valuable experience in postseason action and, well, they can’t be worse than Weise and Weal, right?

Next. Habs need to use Poehling and Evans. dark

Those are some pretty drastic lineup changes. I understand throwing the lines into a blender in the middle of a playoff series isn’t ideal. However, the Habs plan for the first two games was to sit back and hope Carey Price can win games by himself. He did in Game 1 and came pretty close in Game 2 as well. Claude Julien could continue that approach, or try something a little different. Or something very, very different.