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Canadiens greatly benefitted from coaching change

Claude Julien's midseason hiring had massive impact on Montreal's turnaround

by Arpon Basu @ArponBasu / Senior Managing Editor

BROSSARD, Quebec -- The power of the coaching change is real in the NHL this season.

Take a look at the 16 teams that reached the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Seven have a different coach than they did at the end of last season, and four made a coaching change during the season.

When the Boston Bruins decided to fire Claude Julien and replace him with Bruce Cassidy on Feb. 7, it had a massive impact on the fortunes of their biggest rival, the Montreal Canadiens.

Seven days after Julien was fired, the Canadiens hired him to replace Michel Therrien.

At the time, the Canadiens were in a deep rut. They had lost 10 of their previous 14 games and what had looked like an insurmountable lead in the Atlantic Division had been whittled to six points. The Canadiens were outscored 37-27 in those 14 games, were outshot 408-361 and appeared to be drowning.

Julien provided a life preserver.

Video: NHL Tonight breaks down the impact of Claude Julien

The day after he was hired, Julien mentioned how his most important task was to get the Canadiens to believe in themselves again, and he did that by placing a constant emphasis on positivity.

It quickly changed the way the Canadiens saw themselves.

"He's a motivator, he's a good speaker, he wants his players to be happy and have fun and enjoy being at the rink," forward Andrew Shaw said. "When you enjoy being at your job and working hard you're going to produce the best you can. He's a player's coach. He likes to joke around and have fun, but come game time it's business."

An example of Julien's positive approach can be seen in how he recently explained his decision to play forward Alex Galchenyuk, the Canadiens third-leading scorer in the regular season with 44 points (17 goals, 27 assists) in 61 games, on the fourth line with Steve Ott and Andreas Martinsen in Game 1 of their best-of-seven Eastern Conference First Round series against the New York Rangers on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports, MSG).

Rather than criticize Galchenyuk's game, Julien said he liked having someone with offensive skill on that line so that he can have four dangerous forward lines. It's a subtle thing, but it's there.

"It's the way you carry yourself, it's what you do day after day," forward Brendan Gallagher said. "You don't define character in one day or one outing, it's something that you always have. It's a trait that I think he has. He's brought a positive outlook to our group.

There have been tactical changes by Julien, most notably instituting a more aggressive style in the defensive zone and on the penalty kill to shore up problem areas, but the confidence he has instilled in the group appears to have had a bigger impact.

How many coaches in the NHL would answer a question about tactics with this level of detail the day before the start of a playoff series, as Julien did Tuesday?

"I wanted us to tighten up a little bit, we were giving up a lot of goals, a lot of chances. So we tightened up," he said. "I think when you look at our [defensive] zone, how everyone comes in and they stop, they don't just curl away and [are] in a rush to get out of our zone. I think that's really improved our game defensively. We've really been able to crush the plays quicker and been able to come up with the puck quicker than usual, and that means puck possession.

"Even the stuff they were doing before, I tried to fine-tune the stuff, whether it was the neutral zone where we played a 1-1-3 and just fine-tuning that, making sure we got better. That's all I wanted to do. I certainly didn't want to overload them with too many changes, but that's one of them I would say has made a big difference."

Most NHL coaches would answer a question on tactical changes in vague terms, fearing giving away any information to an opponent, especially before a playoff series.

Not Julien.

He doesn't care what Rangers coach Alain Vigneault hears from him because Julien not only knows that Vigneault has already seen it all for himself, but he's confident it will work regardless.

Julien and Vigneault have a longstanding relationship that dates back to them playing minor hockey together as children in the Ottawa area to being teammates with the Salt Lake Golden Eagles of the Central Hockey League for two years in the early 1980s, to coaching against each other in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final when Vigneault coached the Vancouver Canucks.

Julien won that Stanley Cup at his friend's expense and wants to get the upper hand on Vigneault again in this series.

If he's able to do that, if Julien leads the Canadiens to the second round and beyond, it will be in part because of the tactical changes he made that has Montreal playing its best hockey of the season entering the playoffs.

But it will be primarily because Julien convinced the Canadiens that they could.

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