MONTREAL – Alexander Romanov was trending on Friday night.
Not because of the way he played. No, because he didn’t play. He was in the stands watching, waiting for the opportunity to get back into action. After Erik Gustafsson gave up the puck late in Game 3, Romanov had to know he was getting called in for duty on Monday.
And he was. And it paid off. Alexander Romanov scored the 2-1 goal that temporarily put Montreal ahead late in the third period. He was on the receiving end of Tampa’s tying goal, but you could feel the excitement in the Bell Centre when the young defender they had been yearning for all post-season long was finally given the chance to play – and succeeded. Romanov only got a game each against Winnipeg and Vegas despite playing 54 of the 56 regular season games this year. So the result – a win for the Canadiens in a do-or-die event – tied in with a Romanov goal was massive for the club’s morale.
Montreal played completely different with everything on the line, but that was to be expected. But it was clear coach Dominique Ducharme was trying to send a message by switching things up and sitting some notable names – namely Kasperi Kotkaniemi up front. But by swapping out an entire defensive pairing in Gustafsson and Jon Merrill – two guys having a rough round against Tampa Bay – it sent a message that something had to change.
It wasn’t a perfect night, but after watching Romanov and Brett Kulak play on Monday, it’s a mystery why they sat for as long as they did in favor of giving Gustafsson and Merrill – two veterans making too many mistakes to give significant playing time. Romanov had his fair share of turnovers, but you expect that out of a young defender, especially someone who hasn’t had much playing time over the past few months. With Ben Chiarot and Jeff Petry in the box midway through the third, Romanov was forced to play heavy minutes and while he was on the ice for the tying goal, it’s hard to attribute the blame in Romanov’s direction.
Looking at the stats, they definitely weren’t pretty. As the Lightning controlled the expected-goals category, Romanov saw the least amount of ice time among defenders with 10:19 of 5-on-5 play. But what did his inclusion signal? A sign of faith in a key moment in a young player with no big-game NHL experience. Watch the way the team reacted on his goal. They were thrilled for him in more than just a “we’re leading this game!” way. He finally got his opportunity and made the most of it.
Oh, and the guy who set him up? Jake Evans, who also drew into the lineup in favor of Kotkaniemi. It was a move panned by fans on social media who pointed out Kotkaniemi was in a three-way tie for second in goals scored for the Canadiens with five. But three of those came against Toronto in the first round and the fourth came in Game 1 against Winnipeg, with his last goal coming in Game 5 against Vegas. He wasn’t playing well and someone had to sit out. He was the easy choice, and while Evans didn’t light the world on fire, he definitely had a noticeable impact and continues to build on what has been a solid playoff for the young forward – even if he hasn’t played a whole ton.
Kulak didn’t get on the scoresheet, but one thing he did perfectly is helping to start the rush and force Tampa to the perimeter. Kulak will never wow you with his play, but when he’s quiet, he’s typically consistent and making an impact. That’s exactly what he did on Monday, and he deserves to stay in the lineup at this point.
The Canadiens coaching staff was criticized for not giving Romanov, among others, a shot in the first three games. It’s hard to tell what Ducharme was truly thinking with his lineup choices, especially since he missed most of the series against Vegas and the first two games against Tampa. But now that he’s made the choices and found a way to tackle the heavily favored behemoths from down south, the Canadiens find themselves still in contention.
Whether or not the lineup sticks is yet to be known, but it clearly worked.