This is not a new observation – in fact it was made in this very newspaper earlier this week – but it’s worth making again: the man is evolving.
We speak, of course, about Montreal Canadiens coach Michel Therrien.
In last season’s playoffs, he always seemed to be reacting, usually a step late, to the Ottawa Senators’ Paul MacLean.
A year later, he's zoned-in. He has out-coached a Jack Adams nominee through his first four games (Tampa’s Jon Cooper), and is now holding his own against a Stanley Cup and Olympic-winning coaching mind in Boston’s Claude Julien.
The headlines from game three will justifiably be about P.K. Subban, the Habs’ magnificent young defenceman.
He’s been simply dominant in these playoffs, and when he was asked whether the Olympics and other big-game experience have helped him grow, he said: “I can tell you something. I have not changed how I’ve played the game. Not since I was 16 years old and I moved away from home to play in Belleville, Ontario.
“I’ve matured, I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten a little bit of facial hair. I’ve learned, but I play the same game. I’ve always played well defensively, I’ve always moved my puck, I’ve always been a team guy,” he said. “I don’t think anybody expected me to do it at this level. We can look at reasons and try to justify it, but I’m the same player I was six years ago, just a little bit older, probably stronger and little bit more mature. But I haven’t changed my game.”
Therrien may take issue with that last statement, and if there’s an occasion to show some love to the Habs’ coach, perhaps this is the one.
In the first two games of the Bruins - Habs series, Julien managed to get towering defenceman Zdeno Chara out against the top line of David Desharnais, Max Pacioretty (no goals in the series) and Thomas Vanek on basically every even-strength shift.
But with Montreal enjoying the luxury of last chance in Game 3, Therrien did some line juggling – and also kept the opposition guessing with a couple of late lineup decisions, including the insertion of defenceman Douglas Murray, who is limited by his lack of speed but didn’t hurt the Habs unduly (stat-heads will hold up his 27 per cent Corsi rating as evidence to the contrary, but hey, he wasn’t on the ice for any goals against).
But the key decision was to move Vanek alongside Tomas Plekanec on the second line, and elevate Brendan Gallagher to the top unit.
Gallagher was a thorn in Boston’s side all night, at one point he took a dig at Chara in front of the net, at another, he managed to not only bowl over the much-bigger Dougie Hamilton in a net-front skirmish, but added the fringe benefit of Hamilton unwittingly high-sticking teammate Torey Krug.
Vanek, meanwhile, only managed to set up the opening goal, ring a shot off the crossbar in the third period, and chalk up the fifth-strongest possession numbers among Montreal forwards; he did this in just 11:42.
Therrien doubtless would have used him more, but the Austrian left the game for a long stretch of the first period after finding himself as collateral damage in a thunderous Subban hit on Boston’s Reilly Smith – more on Subban shortly.
He returned, none the worse for wear.
After the game, Therrien said he sat down with Vanek, Pacioretty and Desharnais on Tuesday and informed them of the tactical shift he was contemplating.
“He reacted very well. It’s something we talked about (Monday) and we met with the players involved this morning,” Therrien said post-game. “It’s not like he’s playing with a bad player. But when you make changes like this you have to explain the reasons. When you look at the results they had, I think we had reached a point where we needed to make adjustments. That’s part of our responsibilities as coaches to make the right adjustments to get the best out of our team.”
Sometimes small moves can have larger consequences.
When the game was tied or within a goal on Tuesday, the Habs had 55.2 per cent of the unblocked shot attempts, which hasn’t often been the case in this series.
Dale Weise, who scored his second winning goal of the playoffs on a third-period breakaway, said it comes down to quickness through the neutral zone.
“I think you saw us play a strong transition game tonight. Guys were forechecking hard, the defencemen were right up on them in the neutral zone, and boom, we were on the puck and off to the races,” he said.
Therrien said what he likes most about his team is that “we’ve got a business attitude.”
“We approach games with a business mindset. This is what I like about our group. We have to take some tough decisions at times; we’ve got a lot of depth,” he said. “But I’m really pleased with our depth and I’m not afraid to move guys in and out because a lot of guys want to play. They are tough decisions to take at times. But I like the mindset of that team.”