Opting for a faster lineup, the Canadiens are scratching 20-year-old forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who has eight points in 19 playoff games, in favor of forward Jake Evans, making his first appearance since Game 1. Montreal is also sitting defensemen Jon Merrill and Erik Gustafsson in favor of Brett Kulak and rookie Alexander Romanov, neither of whom have seen action since June 14, which was Game 1 of the third round against Vegas.
Meanwhile, the Lightning will go with the same lineup they had in their Game 3 win unless forward Alex Killorn can return from a foot injury. Coach Jon Cooper called him a game-time decision who is “inching closer” to a return after injuring his foot in Game 1.
Montreal is also scrambling its forward lines. Leading scorer Tyler Toffoli, who hasn’t tallied a point in the Final, is expected to skate on the wing with center Phillip Danault and winger Brendan Gallagher. Winger Josh Anderson takes Toffoli’s place with young standouts Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki. Winger Artturi Lehkonen, whom Toffoli replaced on the Danault line, will skate with Evans and Paul Byron, reuniting a line that coach Dominique Ducharme liked for its speed and checking ability.
“We just hope something different will spark the team. Find a way to create some energy,” said Byron. “Offensively, we haven’t been created as much as we have [previously]. For us, a big start to the game will be huge for our team. If we can great start, play with the lead, we show how good our team can be.”
The Canadiens have scored five goals in the first three games against the Lightning. They’ve been unable to score the first goal in any of the games. Montreal is 11-2 in the playoffs when scoring first, and just 1-6 when they do not. The Lightning, meanwhile, are 15-2 when scoring the first goal and 0-4 when they do not.
The scratch of Kotkaniemi raised some eyebrows, as the 20-year-old is seen as a key part of the future for the Canadiens. Ducharme said “it’s not a punishment” for anything that’s happened in the series, although Kotkaniemi was a minus-2 and played just 11 minutes and 38 seconds in Game 3.
“It’s nothing against him or anything else, but we have depth and we have options. That’s the way it is,” said Ducharme, saying that the catalyst for his decision was a desire to unite Evans with Lehkonen and Byron.
One name not in the lineup for the Canadiens continues to be forward Tomas Tatar, the team’s fourth-leading scorer in the regular season who has amassed 57 goals in 198 regular-season games with Montreal over the last three seasons. He hasn’t made an appearance since the first round of the playoffs against Toronto, leaving Canadiens fans wondering why he’s been absent at a time of goal-scoring scarcity.
“I like Tuna. Tuna is a good player,” said Ducharme of Tatar. “It’s just a matter of [line] combinations and playing at that time of the year. At this point, he hasn’t played in a while. It’s even maybe a tougher spot [to return]. But it’s all about the team and what guys can bring together. We like the fit of our four lines tonight.”