Canadiens Game Day: Erik Gustafsson replaces Brett Kulak for Game 5


Head coach Dominique Ducharme hopes change will give Habs’ power play a spark, but it could come at a big cost defensively.

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Head coach Dominique Ducharme will make one change to his lineup with the Canadiens facing elimination in Game 5 of their first-round playoff series against the Maple Leafs Thursday night in Toronto (7 p.m., CBC, SN, TVA Sports, TSN 690 Radio, 98.5 FM).

Defenceman Erik Gustafsson, who has been a healthy scratch since the start of the playoff series, will replace Brett Kulak and join Jon Merrill on the third pairing. Gustafsson and Merrill were both acquired by GM Marc Bergevin before the NHL trade deadline. Defenceman Alexander Romanov will be a healthy scratch for the fifth straight game.

Gustafsson only played five regular-season games with the Canadiens after being acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers at the trade deadline and had two assists along with a plus-1. Gustafsson was a healthy scratch for six straight games before playing in the regular-season finale on May 12 when the Canadiens lost 4-3 in overtime to the Edmonton Oilers.

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Ducharme said he is hoping Gustafsson can help the Canadiens’ power play, which is 0-for-13 in this series. The coach wouldn’t say if Gustafsson would take captain Shea Weber’s spot at the point on the power play. The Canadiens don’t have a single point from any of their defencemen through the first four games of this series.

“He’s in the lineup to help the power play,” Ducharme said about Gustafsson. “He’s patient with the puck. He finds good options on the power play. I think he can help us in that area.”

While the power play is Gustafsson’s strength, defensive play is his weakness.

“We’re going to manage the game,” Ducharme said. “We know our players — we know their strengths and their weaknesses and we’re going to be managing that.”

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With Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe having the last line change for Game 5, he will certainly be looking to get his dynamic duo of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner on the ice whenever Gustafsson and Merrill are out there.

“It’s going to be fun,” Gustafsson said after Thursday’s morning skate. “Always fun to play against the best guys.

“They just told me last night to be ready,” Gustafsson added. “The power play hasn’t been what we want. I think I can maybe help them, come in and play strong. But I’m ready. I’ve been ready for this opportunity for four games now, so it’s going to be fun. … I just think I got to play a simple game. I got to make good choices with the puck, without the puck. … It’s going to be fun to get out and try to help this team to win.”

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Gustafsson was asked why he thinks the Canadiens’ power play wasn’t able to score a goal in the first four games.

“I think we got to move the puck a little quicker,” he said. “I think we have chances to shoot, but we end up passing instead. I think we got to take the puck to the net a little bit more and after that it will open up seams and the passes we want. I think if we move the puck a little bit quicker and shoot the puck a little bit more it’s going to help.”

If the Canadiens win Thursday, Game 6 would be Saturday night at the Bell Centre with 2,500 fans in attendance.

This Canadiens Game Day notebook will be updated after Thursday night’s game.

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Another unanimous decision

When the Canadiens decided to make Romanov, Cole Caufield and Jesperi Kotkaniemi healthy scratches for Game 1 of this series, Ducharme said it was a unanimous decision involving his entire coaching staff and GM Bergevin.

When the Canadiens made a questionable decision to call for a video review for goalie interference after the Leafs scored their third goal in a 5-1 win in Game 2, Ducharme once again said it was a unanimous decision involving the coaching staff and Bergevin.

The decision to sit Kulak in favour of Gustafsson for Game 5 was once again a unanimous decision.

“Same thing,” Ducharme said. “First, as a coach — and you can ask anyone that worked with me before — I’m the one that makes the final decision. But I always take time to talk about the positive, negative on every decision that we make or everything that we do. So after discussions that was what came out of it and that’s what we’re going with.”

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Kulak becomes a spectator

The Canadiens have had problems getting the puck out of their own zone in this series, especially in the second period when they have the long change because of where the benches are located. Kulak has been the team’s best defenceman when it comes to zone exits in possession of the puck, but that didn’t stop Ducharme from making him a healthy scratch for Game 5.

“I don’t want to go into details with every player,” Ducharme said when questioned about the decision. “We’re aware of where our guys are right now and what they can bring. We feel that we need help on the power play. Yeah, Kuly’s good at skating the puck, but Gustafsson is good at moving the puck and we’re going to manage the game. Obviously, it’s 60 minutes that we need tonight and to be consistent doing that as a team. It’s not Gustafsson that’s going to win the game, it cannot be one guy tonight. It’s got to be everyone. Yeah, we can put the focus on that change. We can put the focus on one guy up front, we can put the focus on one guy on defence, one guy in net, but tonight it’s 20 guys wearing the jersey.”

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Net presence a key

One of the reasons the Canadiens scored only four goals in the first four games of this series is a lack of net presence in front of Leafs goalie Jack Campbell, who has a .965 save percentage.

“I find that we’re too easy to check and when you’re easy to check it’s harder to get back at the net and get a second chance,” Ducharme said. “It’s harder to create a chance from little two-on-ones that we want to create. At times we’re there, but without the puck we got to be quicker getting there, more dynamic getting there. The guy with the puck needs to be more dynamic, too, and then options are opening up a little bit more at that time.

“You talk about getting those second chances, then you might have a step on the guy if you’re dynamic like that,” the coach added. “It’s the little things and I think we’ll do that tonight.”

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The lines

Here’s how the forward lines and defence pairings looked at the Canadiens’ morning skate in Toronto:

Tatar – Danault – Gallagher
Toffoli – Suzuki – Caufield
Byron – Kotkaniemi – Anderson
Armia – Staal – Perry

Edmundson – Petry
Chiarot – Weber
Gustafsson – Merrill

The schedule

Here’s the rest of the schedule for the Canadiens-Leafs first-round series. All games will be televised on CBC, Sportsnet, TVA Sports and will be available on radio on TSN 690 and 98.5 FM:

Game 5: Thursday, May 27, 7 p.m., at Toronto
Game 6: Saturday, May 29, time TBD, at Montreal, if necessary
Game 7: Monday, May 31, time TBD, at Toronto, if necessary

scowan@postmedia.com

twitter.com/StuCowan1

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