The Canadiens’ biggest asset is a forward line that will allow them to survive the NHL’s division of death
By Arpon Basu
Nov 5, 2019
Uploaded by: Martin Arnold
The Canadiens were 8-5-2 after 15 games last season. Carey Price had nights when he was not at his best over those first 15 games. Special teams were a significant issue, but their play at five-on-five was overcoming their deficiencies and driving what was widely considered an excellent start.
The Canadiens are 8-5-2 after 15 games this season. Carey Price has had nights, as he did Tuesday against the Boston Bruins, when he is not at his best. Special teams are a significant issue, but their play at five-on-five is overcoming their deficiencies and driving what is considered, what, a lukewarm start?
Expectations can be a funny thing.
There are many similarities between these Canadiens and those Canadiens, but there is one massive difference, one that manifested itself in this classic, back-and-forth thrill ride we were treated to against the Bruins.
At this time last season, though the trio was off to a great start, we had no idea what the Canadiens had in the combination of Tomas Tatar, Phillip Danault and Brendan Gallagher. The expectations for Tatar were very low, with the Canadiens hoping he could recapture what made him a perennial 20-goal scorer for the Detroit Red Wings but with his ineffective short stint with the Vegas Golden Knights somehow overshadowing his time in Hockeytown. Danault was believed to be a nice third-line centre, perhaps second line, a perfect player to take the baton from Tomas Plekanec as the Canadiens’ best two-way pivot. And Gallagher, well, he was exactly what everyone knew he was.
The Canadiens know what they have in that entire line now. They have one of the best five-on-five lines in the NHL.
So when Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak roll into town with 13 goals and 18 assists between them in their previous four games, the Canadiens don’t have to cower in fear. They have an answer, one they are comfortable with and one they know is capable of facing a challenge like that and giving the Canadiens a fighting chance.
“Last year we won both games in Boston, they won both games here, and that line was facing those three guys,” Claude Julien said. “It’s not the first time they’ve done some good work. That’s what they’ve always done. They take pride in defending well and killing plays. At the end of the day, if you want to be effective against the Bergeron line, the best way is to play in their end.”
To that end, when Danault and Bergeron were on the ice together at five-on-five, the Bruins had two shots on goal to 11 for the Canadiens. They had three shot attempts that went unblocked, compared to 15 for the Canadiens. It was the Bergeron line’s worst possession game of the season.
“It was a big challenge for us tonight and we were ready, physically and mentally. We did the job,” Danault said. “No doubt, playing against Patrice’s line is a personal challenge.”
Danault, Tatar and Gallagher were not alone facing this challenge. They were joined by Shea Weber and Ben Chiarot, united specifically to take on this assignment. Weber is accustomed to playing behind the Danault line regularly, Chiarot less so. Not only is he new to the Canadiens, he often finds himself playing behind Max Domi or one of the other forward lines because the regular top pairing of Weber with Victor Mete sees the bulk of the tougher assignments, which means being on the ice with Danault more often than not.
No one on the ice had a better view than Weber and Chiarot of the work Danault’s line was doing against the best line in the NHL, and Chiarot, for one, came away extremely impressed.
“Phil’s line was awesome tonight, they were fun to watch,” he said. “Get them the puck and they were making plays all over the ice, turning over pucks from their defencemen.
“They were fun to play behind tonight.”
It is important not to dismiss the performance of the Danault line as a given, even though it really should be at this point. The sample size of them playing together is too great to ignore how dominant they have been, playing the most difficult minutes on the team but establishing a territorial advantage for the Canadiens practically every game.
The consistency of their performance should be commended when the opportunity presents itself, which, again, is practically every game.
But here’s why it’s more important in the context of how we began, with the Canadiens having an identical 8-5-2 record after 15 games this season. What’s different is that they have already collected six of a possible six points in three games against the Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Last season, the Canadiens had eight points in the eight games against those two teams, with two of those points coming in a meaningless win against Toronto in the last game of the season.
Yes, the Canadiens have played each of those three games with the Maple Leafs or Bruins playing the back end of a back-to-back. The schedule has been their friend. But the Canadiens don’t control that, they just have to take advantage of it, and they’ve done that. The Canadiens scored five goals in each of those three games. They had big third periods in each of those three games. They won each of those three games.
They’ve established early on that they can compete with their two biggest rivals, two rivals who are among the best teams in the NHL and who were practically given the keys to a top-three spot in the Atlantic Division prior to the season.
These Canadiens are different after 15 games than they were last season after 15 games because they have this known commodity of an elite forward line that can neutralize opposing team’s top lines, playing in a division where their primary roadblocks on the way to a possible playoff spot have three of the best top lines in the NHL.
It is an important distinction. So while 8-5-2 might seem like the Canadiens are treading water from one year to the next, they are not. They have three players who can establish a rhythm and pace and tone to every game; every other player can follow and fall in line behind that lead.
It is exactly what the Canadiens had lacked for years. They have it now and continue to reap the benefits.
It makes all the difference in the world.