MONTREAL – A traditional hockey lineup consists of 12 forwards, six defensemen and a goalie, but there are two teams facing off at Bell Centre tonight who see that template differently.
Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher regularly used seven defensemen and 11 forwards last season on his way to the Eastern Conference final, while Montreal Canadiens coach Randy Cunneyworth rotated seven defensemen in a 7-3 win against the Winnipeg Jets on Wednesday.
Cunneyworth appeared to be leaning towards doing the same thing tonight against the Lightning even though the return of Brian Gionta to the lineup makes it somewhat unnecessary. Meanwhile, the only reason Boucher hasn’t used it more this season is because he simply hasn’t had enough healthy defensemen to do it.
That may change tonight as newly acquired defenseman Brendan Mikkelson is available to play.
“When you play with seven D it gets guys like Stamkos, Lecavalier and St. Louis on the ice more often, and it also means you’re defensemen are playing fewer minutes,” Boucher said. “It’s something I’ve used in the past, actually I’ve used it almost every year except this one. But if that’s something we can do, it’s something I would look forward to.”
As for Cunneyworth, his decision to dress seven defensemen Wednesday meant Chris Campoli, Tomas Kaberle and Hal Gill essentially split the third-pairing minutes. It also meant right wing Erik Cole was double and sometimes triple-shifted, resulting in a career-high 27:04 of ice time.
While it would appear that is not a system that could be used on a long-term basis, Cunneyworth didn’t agree, particularly with Gionta being able to take some of those extra shifts from Cole on the right side.
“If the results are there, certainly,” Cunneyworth said when asked if the seven defenseman lineup was sustainable. “I think it creates pressure to perform (on defense). There’s some competition to play the right way, and I think that can be a good thing.”
Gill – who has played 22:35 combined over the past two games – received the fewest minutes among the seven defensemen Wednesday, and while he didn’t want to complain about it he wasn’t exactly thrilled with it either.
“I’d like to play the role the team needs me to play,” he said. “But obviously I’d like to play more.”
The Canadiens had some good news on the injury front as center Scott Gomez was back skating with his teammates for the first time since suffering a setback in his recovery from an upper-body injury about three weeks ago.
“He’s coming along,” Cunneyworth said. “He appears to be on the mend, so we’re upping the ante little.”
The Canadiens and Lightning enter the game tied in points at 37 apiece, with Tampa holding a game in hand. It makes the contest a four-point game between two playoff teams from last season who find themselves in a desperate fight to book a ticket to this spring’s edition.
Some may find it early to be using the term “desperate,” but the NHL’s goal scoring leader Steven Stamkos is not one of them.
“I don’t think it’s early, we’re halfway done here,” Stamkos said. “These are the game we have to win. You don’t win these games, there’s no race. You’re not even in the discussion for the playoffs. We have to show some desperation. We’re in the same boat as these guys, so it should be a good game tonight.”