BROSSARD – With the Habs set to take on an Eastern Conference powerhouse, the team made several key adjustments to the line-up.
A clear sense of urgency was felt by the coaching staff of the Canadiens in the past week. Having dropped five of its last ten decisions and seen its offensive output drop to 22nd overall in the NHL after hovering near the top-five for most of last season, the decision was made to reunite the club’s two best offensive defensemen, as well as to promote two of the Bulldogs’ most dynamic contributors to the Big Team.
“We’ve played a lot together, whether it’s on the powerplay or at even strength, and we’re looking to get back to the things that helped us get wins,” reacted P.K. Subban, after spending the Tuesday morning practice working alongside Andrei Markov, his partner during a season-high ten game unbeaten streak. “I’m not the coach, I’m just a player. It doesn’t matter who I’m paired with, I have a job to do. It’s our responsibility as a defense corp to play solid for our goaltender, and we haven’t done that in our past few games. We need to be more consistent at controlling rebounds and clearing the puck.
Whether the move pays immediate dividends or not, Subban believes that having the right personal combination is just a part of the equation.
“It’s tough to get on a winning streak in this league. We can mix and match as much as we want, but it’s up to us as defensemen to do the best job that we can no matter who we are paired with,” emphasized the reigning Norris Trophy winner. “Obviously Markov and I have had a lot of success together, but it’s really about our group coming together and playing well for our goaltender.”
The reunion was masterminded by coach Michel Therrien, who saw the move catapult the Habs up the standing earlier this season.
“We had discussion about this after the game against Toronto. The move really helped the team get on a roll at the start of the season, so we are hoping for the same effects now,” offered Therrien, whose team was in need of a new look on defense after allowing three goals or more in eight of its last eleven games.
The new philosophy, paradoxically, may well include a great emphasis on offense from the blue line. At practice, the assistant coaches had the team’s rearguard work on a series of quick transition drills, including a four-on-two zone entry exercise in which defensemen were encouraged to make a play and then jump into the rush. Alexei Emelin was paired to Raphael Diaz, while Josh Gorges teamed up with newly recalled Nathan Beaulieu.
“With the players we have, there will definitely be some left-handers who will have to play on the right,” remarked Therrien, who has regularly employed a left-shooting defenseman on his off side during the course of the season. He admitted that, for a variety of reasons, the trial did not have intended effects with Emelin, who is now playing his natural position alongside the right-handed Diaz.
“For sure that in Emelin’s case, there is a lot of work to do. Not as much on what side he plays on, but more about his decision-making and the way he reacts to plays. That’s what we are working on with him,” emphasized Therrien.
With that, the challenge of manning the right point fell to Nathan Beaulieu, a skilled, offensively-minded blueliner.
“I often played the right point on the powerplay in juniors, so it’s something I’m familiar with,” cited Beaulieu, who played thirteen minutes against Toronto and generated a few scoring chances off the rush.
“Beaulieu is a player with good mobility and good on-ice vision, so this is an experiment we want to try,” maintained Therrien, who confirmed that he will suit up along with fellow first-round draft pick and Hamilton recall Louis Leblanc on Tuesday against Pittsburgh.
Both Bulldog mainstays will be well surrounded against the Penguins, the NHL’s number one power play and penalty kill team. Beaulieu will be backed up by Josh Gorges, the Canadiens’ stoutest and most reliable defender. Leblanc, for his part, could skate on a forward line with veteran Travis Moen and rookie Michael Bournival, both of whom he had already worked with in the past in Montreal.
Jack Han is a writer for canadiens.com.
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