For an opposing coach perusing the Montreal Canadiens lineup before facing the NHL's fifth-ranked offense, devising a defensive game plan could be a difficult task.
Unlike the four teams ahead of them in the NHL's goals per game rankings – Pittsburgh, Chicago, Tampa Bay and Toronto – the Canadiens do not have a clearly identifiable star on offense, nor do they have a discernible top line. Montreal does not have a single player among the top 35 scorers in the NHL but each of their top three lines can produce, making them a match-up nightmare.
"You can see why they're a high-scoring team," Washington Capitals coach Adam Oates said Tuesday night after his team blocked 34 of Montreal's 76 attempted shots in a 3-2 win at Bell Centre. "They come in waves and they've got great balance and very good defensemen that move the puck well."
That balance was recently given a big boost with the return to good health of left wing Rene Bourque, who missed 21 games with a concussion and will play on Montreal's "top" line with Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta when the Canadiens face the Buffalo Sabres at First Niagara Center on Thursday night (7:30 p.m. ET, CBC, RDS, MSG-B).
That will bump Michael Ryder back to his natural position of right wing on Montreal's "third" line with young guys Lars Eller and Alex Galchenyuk, two players who arguably have been the Canadiens' best forwards over the past four games.
"We don't rely on one or two guys," Eller said. "If someone has a bad night, there's always another line that steps up. I think that's one of the most encouraging things about this team.
"If they match up some of the best [defensemen] or their best forwards against some line, it's going to open things up for another line. So either way, somebody's going to have a chance to step up. All four of our lines want to have that responsibility to be there. I don't know if I've ever been on a team where the scoring was so spread out among that many players, and at the same time most of those players are playing well defensively as well."
Entering the games Thursday night, the Canadiens had a League-best 10 players with 20 or more points, but none with more than Ryder's and P.K. Subban's total of 32. The next closest were the Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues with eight players apiece. Also, Montreal's six players with 10 or more goals -- an amount that would equate to roughly 21 goals in a regular 82-game schedule -- was also tops in the NHL.
"We try to create as much balance as possible to make it difficult for our opponents to simply concentrate on one line," coach Michel Therrien said. "As a coach, I have to identify the line that's going in a game and exploit that as much as I can. It's better than putting all your eggs in one basket on the same line."
It is a far cry from a season ago, when the Canadiens relied on one line for practically all of their offense. And in a further departure from last season's last-place finish in the Eastern Conference, two of the players who made up that top line are the Montreal forwards who have struggled the most of late.
With Cole traded to Dallas in exchange for Ryder and a third-round draft pick, rookie Brendan Gallagher has played right wing with Desharnais and Pacioretty and it could be argued the new member of the line has been its most consistent player this season. In their past 17 games, Pacioretty has three goals and seven assists, Gallagher has five goals and three assists, and Desharnais has two goals and five assists.
"I wish that they produced more," Therrien said Wednesday, the first time this season he's publicly criticized the line. "I know they care, they're an important part of our team and they're sticking to the plan. But we expect them to be producing more than they have been."
But because of Montreal's improved balance offensively, the Desharnais line's struggles have not affected the group nearly as much as it would have a season ago.
According to how the lines were to be composed against Buffalo on Thursday, the line centered by Desharnais accounted for 26.1 percent of the Montreal offense this season, the Plekanec line was at 24.4 percent, the Eller line (not counting Ryder's goals scored for Dallas) was at 17.6 percent, and Montreal's defense was at 20.2 percent.
The balance fits perfectly with Therrien's mantra that he has preached all season, that of a team concept ruling everything the Canadiens have done, driving them to a lofty perch in the standings that no one expected.
"It's not a matter of whether they're capable to contribute, they have to contribute," Therrien said. "That's the way I see it, and that's the responsibility every line has got.
"If I see there's a line where it's their night, it's my responsibility to try to take advantage of that situation. We've got guys like Lars Eller playing really well lately, Galchenyuk's playing really well lately, so that's a big plus for our hockey team to have three lines that are capable of contributing offensively."
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