Lightning's tenacious third line beating Canadiens at their own game

Throughout their run to the Stanley Cup Final, the Montreal Canadiens have adapted their identity from a team devoid of genuine scoring touch despite solid possession and shot creation numbers, to a team that thrives on the counterattack, capitalizing on opponent mistakes with precision.

Montreal was clearly outmatched by Tampa Bay in Game 1, and though Wednesday's Game 2 may provide a different game script, there was an ominous quality about the defending champion's thorough 5-1 beatdown. Tampa Bay also provided a logical extension of what this Montreal team aspires to be, with Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow excelling defensively, while providing meaningful offensive support.

Lauded by analytically-minded types for the better part of two seasons, the Gourde-Coleman-Goodrow line has all the qualities the Canadiens are demanding from their forwards, they're just operating on a higher plane. Lightning head coach Jon Cooper outwitted Canadiens interim bench boss Luke Richardson all night in Game 1, starting by deploying his nominal third line against Montreal's shutdown trio of Phillip Danault — who has put on a defensive clinic throughout the playoffs — Brendan Gallagher and Artturi Lehkonen. Cooper exercised his right to final line change to perfection, sending the Gourde line out against Danault and company whenever possible, and it paid dividends.

Although Danault's line rarely saw the Lightning's star-studded combination of Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat, it should've relished the opportunity to try to capitalize on Tampa's third line. Instead, the Canadiens received an education, despite Danault posting strong Corsi for and expected goals at 5-on-5. They should take note that Gourde's line has mastered all the qualities they've tried to install during the postseason.

Coleman was a wrecking ball in Game 1, delivering a game-high 11 hits while setting up Tampa's second goal — later credited to Gourde — that stood as the game-winner. Acquired by the Lightning in a trade with the Devils, Coleman in many ways, is a specialist. Coleman leads all players with seven drawn penalties, according to Natural Stat Trick, and though his counting stats won't blow anyone away, he is an opportunistic player capable of seizing the moment, which appears to be the 2021 Canadiens mantra.

Gourde also relished the challenge, posting a game-high 0.37 individual expected goals, one actual goal, while being an absolute menace as a forechecker at 5-on-5 and on the penalty kill. Montreal's penalty kill, which saw its wildly impressive streak of 32 consecutive penalty kills snapped on a late goal by Steven Stamkos, is both aggressive and opportunistic. Gourde, Coleman and Goodrow have those qualities in spades – there's no better evidence than Gourde's series-clinching goal against the Islanders in Game 7 as a prime example, although it really does help when you can also add defensive stalwart Anthony Cirelli into the mix, too.

"They’re a good line," Richardson said after Game 1. "They skate well. They’re tenacious. They finish their checks. So they’re going to be a hard line to play against. You’d probably maybe compare it to Phil’s line, you know Phil, Lehky and Gally. They’re hard. They’re hard to play against."

Coleman and Gourde's possession numbers haven't been nearly as strong during the playoffs, but Gourde in particular is still doing a great job of creating meaningful, secondary offense. In fairness to Gallagher and Danault, they posted excellent possession and shot-creation stats during the regular season, but putting the graphs aside for a second, if actual offensive production is a wash, it's a seismic victory for the Lightning. Gourde's six goals are more than what Danault (zero) Gallagher (two) and Lehkonen (three) have produced all postseason, combined.

Tampa doesn't need its third line to create offense, because Kucherov, Point and Stamkos are in a different tier offensively than any Canadiens player, but if it does, this series is going to be over soon.

It's way too early to write the Canadiens off, but the Lightning's third line embody all the qualities that propelled the North Division winner to the Final.

TAMPA, FL - JUNE 21: Yanni Gourde #37 of the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrates a goal with teammates Barclay Goodrow #19, Blake Coleman #20, and Jan Rutta #44 against the New York Islanders during the first period in Game Five of the Stanley Cup Semifinals of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena on June 21, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)
Tampa's third line gave the Canadiens a taste of their own medicine in Game 1.(Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images) (NHLI via Getty Images)

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