Following the Montreal Canadiens’ line combinations is like tracing a single thread through a tangle of yarn. On any given shift, after any given power play or any given penalty kill, head coach Michel Therrien might throw out three or even five guys that make you go, huh?
Bourque starting on the 4th line tonight, but knowing Therrien he'll play on lines one through three before the night is done. #Habs
— Matthew Macaskill (@Habsology) December 17, 2013
It’s not hard to understand why Therrien is struggling to find the right chemistry. The Habs’ anemic offense is embarrassing. In six games they haven’t scored in the first period. In the last five games they’ve been outscored 11-6, with two of those goals coming after the goalie was pulled.
Last night’s game against the Phoenix Coyotes was more of the same, despite a winning record against the ‘Yotes that dates back to 1998. Here’s a quick look at Therrien’s thread through 60 minutes.
The Habs’ Forward Lines
The game started with the following lines:
After another scoreless first period, and the Coyotes ahead by 1, Therrien began to mix it up in the second. René Bourque, who returned to the lineup after missing seven games with an upper body injury, found himself on a line with Eller and Prust. Eller hasn’t produced during the team’s recent struggles and found himself on the ‘fourth line’.
Therrien saw something he liked because after a Coyotes power play he decided to throw out Eller and Bourque but switched out Prust for Moen. Prust was bumped up to join Bournival and Brière on the team’s third line. But none of those combos worked as the Habs went scoreless in the second period for a fifth straight game. The team did some things right – they killed off a 4 minute minor and Price survived the onslaught by making some great saves as the Habs started to pull their game together.
The line juggling continued in the third, even after defenseman Andrei Markov got the Habs on the board. Bourque, Bournival and Briere formed a line at the 15 minute mark. Then the Habs came alive with a boatload of chances and Pacioretty finally found the back of the net with his stock line mates, Gallagher and Desharnais. That line, so far, has been set in stone since Pacioretty started scoring at a torrential pace during the Habs’ winning streak.
The game ended 3-1 for the Habs, with a Pacioretty empty-netter for good measure.
The Canadiens’ Defensive Pairs
The biggest change on defense was Therrien’s decision to split up by far his most reliable pairing of Markov and P.K. Subban. Thankfully, they were kept together on the power play which generated two of the Habs’ goals, but otherwise the two were apart after the Habs went scoreless in the first.
In his post-game press conference, Therrien was asked about his decision to split up a proven pair: “This is something we’ve been thinking about for a long time. We didn’t like the transition from the defensemen to the forwards, especially in the first period and it’s been like that probably for about the last ten days,” Therrien said. “We figured it was a good time to make those changes. We want to have a guy on the ice that’s been recognized to move the puck well so I want a pairing with Markov, with PK and the other pairing we got Diaz.”
It’s hard to tell whether or not this was a successful experiment because though the Coyotes didn’t score after the first, the Habs’ only goals came either on the power play or with the extra skater. The good news is that after being out shot 15-3 in the first, the Habs managed to out shoot the Coyotes 25-12 over the final 40 minutes. However, expect the lines to keep changing until the Habs can figure out how to score in the first 20 minutes of a game, or 40 at the very least.
The Habs embark on their Christmas Road Trip this week and it will be interesting to see how long the Markov-Subban break up lasts as teams that can score realize the Habs are running with three diluted defensive pairs.
Happy Holidays Everyone!