One way or another, this is fated to become a referendum on the guy behind the bench.
It’s not fair, exactly, but that’s just how life works.
Two of the struggling scorers have long-term contracts, the third is expected to scarper as a free agent in about seven weeks’ time.
So attention is naturally focused at the top; coaches are a fungible asset.
For those partial to reading a lot into such matters, the Montreal Canadiens’ Michel Therrien looked relaxed and chipper ahead of the Habs’ elimination tilt against Boston (although there was repeated jaw clenching, and he semi-snapped at a television technician whose cell-phone chirped during the questions – does that mean anything?)
He said the usual stuff about the importance of a strong start, and indicated that he was approaching the game as “a fun challenge.”
Having led the series and now facing elimination against a swaggering Bruins team, this could be a stern test for the power of positive thinking.
“You have to have the right attitude to approach this game, I sense the right attitude. I spoke to some players (Sunday) and I spoke to some players (Monday) morning, and that’s the feeling I got,” he said, “everything is in the attitude.”
The players, he continued, “are very well-prepared.”
Asked whether the water-squirting incident at the end of game five – Boston’s Shawn Thornton sprayed P.K. Subban from the bench – can be used as a little extra spur, he said “of course a lack of respect can serve as motivation.”
Therrien has had remarkable success with his lineup and tactical decisions in his second tenure at the Bell Centre – although the advanced stats crowd will tell you there have been more misses than hits this season – but his decisions in the second-round series with the Boston Bruins have come under careful scrutiny.
Subbing in the banged-up Brandon Prust for Daniel Brière robbed the lineup of offensive punch and the flexibility to paper over the cracks left by the struggling Tomas Plekanec.
Eyebrows were raised when he sent Prust and his fellow fourth-liners out for an offensive zone draw while chasing the game in the second period.
Depth has been the Habs’ hallmark this season, and the coach voluntarily limited it in Boston last weekend.
Sticking with the slow-footed Douglas Murray (who played 10:03) worked out better than it did in game four, but he was nevertheless on the ice for Boston’s first goal.
Judging performance in hindsight is as inevitable as it is imperfect, Therrien’s moves would surely look better if his top line were able to get untracked against Boston – Max Pacioretty in particular – but Boston coach Claude Julien has the same problem.
Changes are surely in store for Monday’s game six (7:30 p.m., CBC, RDS), although Therrien was being typically coy as to what they might be.
Reading the entrails at the morning skate, it would appear that defenceman Nathan Beaulieu could play his first professional post-season game in Murray’s stead, and that winger Travis Moen will be left aside for Brière.
The 21-year-old Beaulieu said he had no idea if he’d be playing, but said his experience practicing with the team in the playoffs – he is the only prospect invited to step up from the Black Aces – has been helpful.
“It’s good to be around the guys,” said Beaulieu, who has 23 NHL games under his belt. “Playoff hockey, it doesn’t get any bigger than that, and it doesn’t get any bigger than in Montreal.”
But putting Beaulieu, an offensively-gifted but something less than physical blue liner in Murray’s slot would be an atypical risk for Therrien (who may wish he had given the former first-rounder, and fellow blue-chipper Jarred Tinordi more NHL experience in the regular season).
It’s just as likely that veteran Francis Bouillon or Murray (the two were wrestling good-naturedly at the morning skate – omen!)
Therrien seemed to be in complete control of his game-plan and his emotions early in the series, as he has been throughout the playoffs, but the Montreal coaches didn’t have an answer for Julien’s tweaks – which included giving a playoff debut to Matt Fraser, whose arrival has turned Boston’s third line into their most dangerous unit.
In last season’s playoffs against Ottawa, Therrien lost his cool on several occasions; this season he has been far more assured and relaxed.
He’ll need to be for this game.