It’s Time for a True Checking Line
May 24, 2021
By Grant McCagg
It’s time to stop being scared.
That has been the Montreal Canadiens approach for the past 25 years. The playoff game plan has always been to play a safe, tight-checking defensive style and rely on goaltending and breaks.
The Canadiens have made two unsuccessful trips to the conference finals using that strategy over the past 25 years. It hasn’t worked…has it?
Albert Einstein is famous for saying: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” So why continue to do the same thing that has brought you failure over and over again?
It’s time to take the reins off. I wish it could be drilled into the coaching staff’s hard heads that this team is talented. In fact, with John Tavares out for the series….for at least 40 minutes a game, Montreal could, and should, have the most talent on the ice.
No – the Canadiens do not have any forwards as explosive as Marner and Matthews no matter who they put out on the ice. They are the best players in this series from a talent standpoint, and I’m not going to argue differently. For the other 35-40 minutes of the game, though, there’s no reason why it can’t be the Canadiens putting out the most skilled line every shift.
Here’s how. First of all – say goodbye to Eric Staal and Tomas Tatar and insert Cole Caufield and Jake Evans (if healthy) into the lineup. Move Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen onto a line with Phil Danault, and have them matched up against the Matthews line. They are supposedly your three best checkers…so utilize them as such. Tell them to pester those guys until they’re crying to the ghost of Harold Ballard. That look on Matthews’ face at the end of Game 1? Make it permanent. All three can skate and all three have heart…so have them in their most useful role. Is Lehkonen’s best role really to be checking the other team’s third or fourth-best line? Is Byron’s? Who cares if they shut down Jeritol Joe Thornton?
The great Montreal teams of yore used that strategy more often than not. Claude Larose was out on the ice shadowing Bobby Hull in the Cup finals in 1971, and it worked to perfection for the final four games of that series. Larose had no business playing more than 15 minutes a game when you looked at that roster…but if it meant shutting down Hull….then it made complete sense, freeing up Montreal’s three scoring units to face inferior lines for 40-45 minutes per night and eventually win thanks to their great overall depth. Why not have three Laroses out against Marner and Matthews instead of Tomas Tatar?
It was even more pronounced in the mid-to-late 1970’s when the Canadiens won four straight Cups. The so-called fourth line of Bob Gainey, Doug Jarvis and Jimmy Roberts/Rick Chartraw played 15-18 minutes a lot of nights in the playoffs, shutting down the likes of Clarke, Leach, Barber, Middleton, Ratelle, Sittler, McDonald, Trottier, Bossy and so on. They did a stellar job of checking the top lines and keeping them to a goal or two at most on most nights, and for two-thirds of the game Montreal’s other three lines simply couldn’t be matched.
The 1986 Cup winner had a similar strategy – with Guy Carbonneau, Gainey and Chris Nilan being tasked most nights with shutting down the other team’s top line. Mind you – Gainey and Carbo were so good that they not only shut down top lines, but on many nights outscored them as well in that playoff. Both would finish among the top five in forward scoring on the Canadiens that playoff run.
It’s safe to say, having watched both Lehkonen and Tatar in the playoffs over the past five years that Lehkonen is more valuable in a checking role. He’s also more productive. Lehkonen’s game translates to the playoffs. One could even argue that he was the club’s best overall forward in Montreal’s last two trips to the playoffs. So why not have him replace Tatar on Danault’s line?
Over the past three regular seasons, the trio of Danault, Gallagher and Tatar was one of the top two-way lines in the league, so I can understand why many have been reluctant to bench Tatar, but enough is enough. He has no goals in his last 14 games and only three assists, and he is struggling. When he isn’t scoring…he really isn’t contributing much more, and Tatar now has 11 points in 37 career playoff games.
The Danault line hasn’t been especially effective against the Matthews’ line over the past three seasons. Matthews has seven goals and 14 points in 10 games against Montreal this year, and now has 20 goals in 26 combined career outings versus the Canadiens. I honestly can’t see a trio with Lehkonen and Byron being worse than that. The cold, hard fact of it is that this so-called great line has not helped Montreal win a single playoff series. The Pittsburgh series was a qualifier, and even if you count it, the line was quite ordinary in that series.
Byron is playing his best hockey since his concussion in March of 2019, and the chemistry with Lehkonen right now is apparent regardless of who is centering them. They were good with Evans, and when he got injured, they were good with Kotkaniemi. So why not put them with the club’s best checking center, and task them with shutting down the Matthews line? The Habs will have the last change…match them up. Danault has plenty of experience playing with Lehkonen and Byron in important checking roles. He is almost always paired with one or the other on the penalty kill, and more often than not when he plays in overtime during the regular season, he is paired with Byron, often to start the 3-on-3.
Some of you may say: “Well..that’s playing safe”…but I don’t look at it that way. It’s trying your best to shut down Toronto’s one dangerous line, and freeing up the other nine forwards to concentrate mostly on offence.
So you have Lehkonen-Danault-Byron with Petry and Edmundson versus Marner-Matthews-Hyman, and hope that they can minimize their offence.
This is where the advantage really swings in Montreal’s favour if the coaches have the chutzpah to take advantage of the skill mismatch in the other three lines. Why not? For 40-45 minutes a game, the Canadiens on most shifts can have the most talent on the ice.
Get Gallagher with some offensive talent and tell him to go to the net and score goals and not worry about having to check the other team’s top line. You know he’s going to work hard in all three zones regardless, but with less emphasis on getting back, tell him to camp in Campbell’s crease and make life miserable for him and Toronto’s defence.
Ten years ago, Thornton-Simmonds and Spezza were better than any of Montreal’s other three lines…but it’s not 2011. That line can be exploited with speed and skill if Ducharme can stop worrying about what the other guys are doing and turn the tables – make the other coach worried about what HE is doing. Match up Armia-Kotkaniemi-Anderson against those three, and you not only have equal size but tons more speed and youth.
Where the Canadiens can really exploit the Leafs, though, is pitting a line of Toffoli-Suzuki-Caufield up against Galchenyuk-Foligno-Nylander. Habs’ fans are quite familiar with Chucky’s defensive game, and that’s a matchup that can be exploited. Who was the culprit on Kotkaniemi’s goal last night? Galchenyuk standing beside him twiddling his thumbs.
Caufield got to play with Suzuki in the final game of the season for the first and only time, and it was apparent right away that they had chemistry. The smart (and brave) thing to do would have been to start the playoffs with those two together. You knew it wasn’t going to happen, though, because Ducharme’s first instinct is always to play it safe and trust the veterans. He was the prize student for 2.5 years of Julien’s Finishing School, and lessons that have been drilled into you are hard to dismiss.
I think Suzuki’s line can exploit that trio. Foligno is not a second-line center…neither are Riley Nash or Alexander Kerfoot, for that matter, if they try to mix things up, and Galchenyuk has no business being on a second line if he’s not insulated by a great player like John Tavares.
Which leaves a Toronto trio of Mikheyev-Kerfoot-Nash against Perry-Evans-Gallagher. Gallagher and Evans’ energy can offset any lack of quickness in Perry’s game, and when they’re in the offensive zone…that’s a goaltender’s nightmare having to deal with both Gally and Perry. If the line doesn’t click in Game 3? Bring Tatar back in to replace Perry so there’s a little more speed, or perhaps even give Jesse Ylonen a look. I think, though, unless they really struggle, that you keep those three together and let them build some chemistry. Evans has displayed more confidence with the puck in the past month – give him a goal scorer and some net presence and hope that the line can generate some offence.
There’s much more talent in Montreal’s bottom nine than Toronto’s with these configurations as far as I’m concerned, so instead of always worrying about how to stop the other team’s offence, make them worry about stopping yours for a change. Everything changed with the Tavares injury; there is no skill advantage with the Leafs as long as a good portion of your talent isn’t wasting away in the press box.
The other change for me has to be getting Alex Romanov back in the lineup. A major reason why Montreal was successful in Game 1 is that they came out hitting often and hard. Well; no one does that better than Romanov. Be aggressive and push the pace…have a defenceman on every pairing that forwards are hesitant to face shift-after-shift. Merrill has played okay but there is no urgency to his game, and I think Montreal has to push the pace. Romanov is the club’s second most mobile defenceman, so get him out there.
We saw how pumped up KK was to get back in the lineup – it will be the same thing with Romanov, who lives, eats and breathes hockey. I would also bet the farm on Caufield playing like he was shot out of a cannon. Both of those guys will not want to be scratched from the lineup again, and both will be highly motivated. Utilize that youthful energy and talent instead of wasting it in the stands.
Be prepared to win, not scared to lose.
LATE NOTE: Apparently Staal and Evans are out. Tatar was going to be a healthy scratch, but he gets to play now. He needs to produce.
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You like Lehkonen more than I do, but I think this is an excellent and persuasive piece. As you say, Carbonneau, Gainey, and Nilan each brought some offense to the team besides being outstanding checkers. With that in mind, I kind of wonder if Gallagher might do well in a checking-line role where he can get under the opponent’s skin on the defense side of the puck and still create some scoring chances. I know there are plenty of arguments for keeping one of the better scorers on a scoring line (is there such a thing with the Canadiens this year?) but as you rightly point out, the team needs to put an emphasis on shutting down the Leaf’s top players.