BROSSARD, Quebec -- There were times this season when Lars Eller and Rene Bourque might have wondered whether they would even be in the Montreal Canadiens lineup when the Stanley Cup Playoffs began.
Those times were not so long ago.
But now, at the most important time of year, Eller and Bourque are filling important roles for the Canadiens, playing on a line with captain Brian Gionta and providing the depth up front that has allowed Montreal to build a 3-0 lead in the Eastern Conference First Round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Canadiens will go for a series sweep in Game 4 on Tuesday at Bell Centre (7 p.m. ET; NHLN-US, CBC, RDS, FS-F) with Eller tied for the team lead with four points and Bourque leading the team with three goals.
McCarthy: Challenges await
For additional insight into the Stanley Cup Playoff series between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Montreal Canadiens, NHL.com has enlisted the help of longtime NHL assistant/associate coach Kevin McCarthy to break down the action. McCarthy will be checking in throughout the series.
McCarthy played in more than 500 NHL games with the Philadelphia Flyers, Vancouver Canucks and Pittsburgh Penguins, then spent a decade as an assistant and associate coach with the Carolina Hurricanes, where he was a member of the staff that led the franchise to a Stanley Cup championship in 2006. He joined the Flyers as an assistant during the 2009-10 season and stayed in Philadelphia until October 2013.
Kevin McCarthy has been in the position that both the Canadiens and the Lightning find themselves in, and there are unique mental challenges facing each.
For the Canadiens, the natural tendency for a team that's ahead 3-0 in a series is to realize there is room for error, even if you do everything in your power to convince yourself otherwise.
McCarthy was with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006 when they were ahead 3-1 in the Stanley Cup Final against the Edmonton Oilers, yet lost Game 5 and Game 6 before winning the Cup in Game 7.
"You can lose your focus," McCarthy told NHL.com. "In the back of your mind, if things don't go your way early in the game or you're not playing well, you know you have another game to win it. The biggest mistake you can make is to think the other team is going to think the series is over. You have to understand that team is playing with a purpose."
McCarthy knows, because he was that team when he was behind the bench of the 2010 Philadelphia Flyers, who came back from a 3-0 series deficit to beat the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
McCarthy said what he and coach Peter Laviolette did ahead of Game 4 was break it down into five-minute segments, challenging the Flyers to win each segment, thereby making the monumental task of winning four games as small as possible.
"If you can win or come out even after that first five-minute segment," McCarthy said, "then the goal starts to become more and more attainable."
The way the Lightning finished Game 3 against the Canadiens, putting together their best 40 minutes of the series, should provide them with something to build on in Game 4. McCarthy thinks Tampa Bay will benefit from simply knowing that if it plays the way it did in the second and third periods of Game 3, it should be able to win a game against Montreal.
And that's where the journey back starts.
"Mentally," he said, "that's a huge plus for Tampa Bay."
-- Arpon Basu
"There were long stretches in the regular season where I played well but the points weren't coming," Eller said after a brief Canadiens practice Monday. "You can't always control whether the puck is going in or not. A lot of it is playing with the other four guys on the ice too. They have a big impact on that as well. Right now we're getting good bounces.
"We're working hard and creating our own luck."
On March 5, Eller watched from the press box when the Canadiens took on the Anaheim Ducks on the road, mired in a 21-game goal drought at the time.
He got back in the lineup and four games later Eller snapped that drought, scoring the goal that began a historic comeback that turned a late-game 4-1 deficit into a 5-4 overtime win against the Ottawa Senators.
That win was the start of an 11-3-1 finish to the regular season for the Canadiens, a hot streak they continue to ride in winning three straight against the Lightning to start the series.
Bourque was a healthy scratch for five straight games from March 12 to March 20 and once again on April 4. When the Canadiens held their first practice to prepare for the Lightning, Bourque was not on any of the top four lines and looked as though he might be scratched.
Canadiens coach Michel Therrien was not asked a single question on the possibility of that happening that day, largely because Bourque's play in the regular season did not necessarily earn him a spot in the lineup.
Not only is Bourque in the lineup, his three goals in the past two games are more than he had scored in his previous 27 in uniform.
In his case as well as that of Eller, their play in the playoffs is a reward for Therrien having shown patience with both of them, putting them in the lineup and giving them minutes when their play might not have warranted.
Therrien was convinced each player would come out of his respective funk, and they have simultaneously at the most opportune time imaginable for the Canadiens.
"These are two players that at times during the regular season had some hard times. But it's a process and they went through that process," Therrien said. "Sometimes we had to make decisions that are never easy, to take a player out of the lineup. There's reasons for that, because you know how they're capable of playing and where we want to see their game.
"It's not an easy thing to do, but we see the result right now with those guys. They've responded the right way."
The Canadiens were built to be a team that attacks in waves, that has three lines that can score and which in turn provides matchup nightmares for opposing coaches. It didn't quite work out that way, in large part because of the extent of Eller's and Bourque's struggles.
But this is exactly what the Canadiens have become in the playoffs, a team where 11 of the 12 forwards who have dressed for the first three games has at least a point, and none have more than Eller's four points.
The big threat against Tampa Bay was supposed to be Montreal's top line of David Desharnais, Max Pacioretty and Thomas Vanek, but that trio has combined for two goals and three assists in three games, the lowest total of Montreal's top three lines.
The line centered by Tomas Plekanec with Brendan Gallagher and Brandon Prust on the wings has combined for four goals and three assists, and the line of Eller, Bourque and Gionta has five goals and four assists.
Therrien says the reason for this offensive balance is in fact starting at the opposite end of the ice.
"We have to play well as a team defensively and that includes our forwards and our defense," he said. "We have to stick to our structure, stick to the game plan. This is where we're at our best offensively. When we start running around, like any other team, that's when we get in trouble."
Canadiens defenseman Josh Gorges agrees. He said a big reason why Montreal has been able to limit the Lightning to seven goals in the series, three in the past two games, is the Canadiens forwards have done such an excellent job making the defensemen's jobs easier.
"The biggest key to our success so far has been our forwards; how hard they work, the pressure they put on the puck all over the ice not just on the forecheck deep in their end, but at the blue lines, coming back, back pressuring," Gorges said. "When they do those sorts of things it forces [the Lightning] to move the puck, it forces them to make plays, it allows us as defensemen to hold our gaps.
"If our forwards are lazy coming back, [the Lightning] have the ability to move east-west to create some time and space for themselves and it makes it a lot tougher on us."
If the Canadiens forwards continue to have such a large impact at both ends of the ice, a trip back to Tampa for Game 5 on Thursday may not be necessary. But Gorges knows just how difficult it will be to end the Lightning's season on Tuesday.
"They have no choice but to give everything they have, so that puts a lot more on us that we have to find that same drive, that same desperation, that same energy level," Gorges said. "Because if you don't have it, you know that they do."