“You can’t jump on the ice and be a 10 – or whatever card you are, pick a number – then suddenly be an ace, then be a three,” he said. “You cannot be unpredictable.”
We can’t necessarily think of a game where the face value of a card does what Ducharme suggested, but he was right about what he was saying, and he needs to lean into that mentality before he puts his lines together and his power play plans if he wants the Canadiens to win Tuesday’s fourth game and return that series to Toronto in a 2-2 tie. What he knows at this stage is far more valuable than the unknown.
While the Canadiens spent most of the first 40 minutes of Game 3 chasing the puck, that was at least somewhat influenced by the randomness of their lineup. Brendan Gallagher, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Tyler Toffoli, who had played less than 30 minutes together five-on-five this season, must have spent much of that time finding chemistry. The same goes with Tomas Tatar, Phillip Danault and Josh Anderson, who only spent 45:15 together from mid-January to mid-May.
The time for experimentation is over. The Canadiens have only scored four goals in three games and haven’t produced anything on their momentum-killing power play, so some stability is in order if they are to change that.
Ducharme started this streak with Tatar, Danault and Gallagher together and dropped out of the line after a game and a half. It was somewhat justified, given the line’s performance, but their chemistry built on hundreds of games together should bring out the best of themselves in this situation. All three players had just been injured before the first game, and now the three of them are in this series and must have their best opportunity to help the Canadiens equal.
It’s a reality Gallagher appeared to acknowledge in his carefully framed comments after Monday’s game.
“The first game, I thought we hadn’t done really badly but that we hadn’t created much,” he said. “I thought in the second game we had a pretty decent first half and then after that we had some penalty issues and really didn’t play together after that. I’ll say there’s probably not much time left, but if we get back together we’re probably pretty confident.
Gallagher, who has yet to score in that series, ended his reflection by saying that the lines may have created positive momentum for the Canadians in a third period that defeated them the Maple Leafs 15-2, but he did there’s no way he, Tatar, and Danault feel they have a better chance of being effective with someone else than they would with each other.
Leading up to the series, Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe called them “as good a line as they have been in the league in recent years,” and the numbers reflect that. His counterpart surely knows that.
Ducharme would also know that while Toffoli and Nick Suzuki didn’t produce much together in Matches 1 and 2, they played 336: 54 as the duo with Montreal’s best scoring 5v5 this time. season. They’ve been dynamite in every situation on the home stretch, scoring 14 goals and 26 points in their last 12 games.
The coach may not go for a reunion in Game 4, but Suzuki explained on Tuesday morning why that would be a good idea, with Toffoli stuck on zero goals for the series after scoring 28 in the regular season.
“I think our chemistry just comes from the way we both think about the game,” he said. “(Toffoli) sees ice at a very high level. He is capable of playing any game. He is a great shooter. I think we meshed really well at the end of the season there. And if we’re lucky enough to play together again, I thought we weren’t as good with the puck as we usually are in the first two games of the series, (but) I felt better in the last game. (and) he had a good chance last night.
“I like to play with him so if we get the chance I’m definitely open.”
With neither player being some of Montreal’s fastest skaters, and with the two paired up with one of the team’s slowest players at Joel Armia, it was a fight against the Maple Leafs’ quick defensive duo, Morgan Rielly and TJ Brodie in Toronto.
But in Montreal, the Canadians control the clashes. Ducharme can keep Toffoli and Suzuki away from these two for at least part of the time, and he can swap Armia for Cole Caufield for a much-needed turbo boost.
“There’s a lot to like (playing with Caufield),” Suzuki said. “He plays the game with a lot of energy, sees the ice well. I think that’s an underrated part of his game. He’s able to play any game, and when he gets the chance to score he’s always ready to shoot the puck.
Caufield being an elite offensive talent is the reason he played with Suzuki in Game 2, and although the sample size was small during the regular season, there was something proven to be between them and Toffoli. They controlled 70% of shooting attempts and 63% of expected goals during their limited time as a line.
It’s a known product, as is Caufield’s unique stopwatch on the left side of the power play.
It’s where the kid has scored the bulk of his goals with the Wisconsin Badgers over the past two seasons, but it’s not where he’s played most of his time with the Habs.
“He can go both ways, and that’s something we can use,” Ducharme said ahead of Game 4. “So depending on who he’s going to play with, he could be on the left side, he could be on the left side. law.
“So that’s something that’s good for a goalscorer – being able to play different places like that on the power play makes him less predictable, and I think he’s good at shooting the puck on both sides.
Yes, Caufield has shown he is capable on the right. He even landed Montreal’s best scoring chance from there in Game 2 with a shot he snatched off the crossbar on a power play early.
But just the threat of his clock on the left would open up more options all over the ice for the Canadians, and removing that feels counterintuitive and counterproductive.
The same was true for the Canadiens’ best unit instead of trusting it to succeed the first three games. Toffoli, Suzuki and Jeff Petry were together for 12 of the Canadiens’ 29 power play goals this season, but Shea Weber has been in Petry’s place throughout this series.
A return to basics is essential. Ducharme was unwilling to confirm his roster for Game 4 – Artturi Lehkonen, Jake Evans and Eric Staal are all game-time decisions – but it would be wise to follow what he knows, as the unpredictability factor is hurting much more to Canadians than it helps them so far.