The Montreal Canadiens have now lost three straight, all against division rivals, and their recent 6-0 drubbing at the hand of the Maple Leafs likely has them digging deep for answers. As the losses begin to pile up it’s becoming clear that the line that was expected to be the Habs’ number one has consistently been among the early disappointments this season.
Erik Cole, David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty have already become the second line in terms of ice-time, but Saturday night coach Michel Therrien took things a step further and split the trio up. Cole and Pacioretty saw their least amount of game time since the start of the season. Desharnais had a tough match of his own, he finished with a -3 rating and went 5/16 in the faceoff circle.
But breaking up an unproductive line when the team is mired in a hopeless game is one thing, Therrien has taken it a step further and it looks like he’ll be making some changes before the next puck drop. Cole and Desharnais skated with Brandon Prust in practice Monday, while Max Pacioretty skated with rookies Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk.
Even though he’s been kept goalless this season, Pacioretty has been the best part of the former top line. Galchenyuk and Gallagher have shown plenty of promise this season, so putting the three together makes sense. Still, it’s hard to imagine Gallagher or Galchenyuk getting top-6 minutes just yet, Therrien has been carefully watching their ice time, rarely letting them surpass 12 minutes per match.
Brandon Prust has been a solid off-season acquisition, but not for his offensive skill. Moving Desharnais and Cole onto a line with Prust can be seen as a wake-up call to the pair, Therrien is letting those two know that the rookies have shown more offensive spark and now they need to regain the coach’s confidence.
It shouldn’t be surprising that Cole and DD find themselves in this position, last year’s top line hasn’t been quite the same this season. The trio only accounts for 5 of Montreal’s 31 goals, Tomas Plekanec has 6 goals himself. But does that mean Therrien is better off breaking up the line or should he ride out the storm in the hopes that last season’s spark returns to provide the Habs with the secondary, or possibly primary, scoring the team needs.
If Galchenyuk and Gallagher continue to have success, their promotions could work in Therrien’s favor. Max Pacioretty will benefit from the impressive playmaking abilities of Alex Galchenyuk and his presence will also help open up space for Brendan Gallagher. The line has the pieces to be successful, even if it is a bit light on experience.
Desharnais would have a bit of extra incentive to pick his game up as well, and he wouldn’t lose all his support. Desharnais has struggled in the faceoff dot this season and has had trouble finding the back of the net, he’ll be under pressure to produce otherwise his place in the roster could be in jeopardy. Luckily, while Brandon Prust has had trouble keeping up with Gallagher and Galchenyuk at times he hasn’t been holding the kids back. It will be up to Cole and Desharnais to provide the offense on the line but Prust will do his part to help out.
Desharnais probably isn’t the only one feeling some pressure. If Cole’s output, or at least effort level, doesn’t improve he could be in trouble as well. For his part, Cole recognizes that this season he simply hasn’t been good enough. He acknowledged in a text message to his teammates that he needs to play better.
The Canadiens expect more from Cole and Cole expects more from himself. If the team has any hopes of improving on their strong start they’ll need better results from Cole, Desharnais and Pacioretty. All three have shown they are capable of impressive results when together, if they can make things happen apart as well the Canadiens might just be able to make the most of their recent struggles.
Rob has been blogging about the Habs since 2011 at MontrealHockeyTalk.com and can usually be heard before every Canadiens games on the MHT Pregame Show.