To look at how far Montreal has come in a season, you only have to look at No. 27, Alex Galchenyuk. The former Sarnia superstar went third overall in the 2012 draft and he’s already gearing up for his first NHL playoff game.
Yes, the Habs were dragged down last season, but a new coach, healthier defense and influx of top youth won the squad the Northeast Division title and are now primed for their opening round series against Ottawa, which begins Thursday night.
And along with Galchenyuk, you really have to look at the play of Brendan Gallagher, the 5-foot-9 spitfire who turns 21 in a couple days and has a very real shot at the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.
With 15 goals and 28 points in 44 games, Gallagher provided ample secondary scoring for the Habs, with a sturdy plus-10 rating to boot. Those numbers all ranked among the best of NHL rookies, but it was the gnat-like peskiness of the youngster that really drove his success. Gallagher goes into the corners, heads to the net and doesn’t mind digging around the crease – much to the dismay of opposing defensemen.
“It’s the only way I’m effective as a player,” he said. “I enjoy it. I don’t expect them to like it, but for me it’s important. It gets me in the game. I try not to cross the line, but I do play hard.”
That work ethic has not gone unnoticed among the veterans on the squad, including another small man who has come up big in his career.
“He works extremely hard and he works for everything he gets,” said captain Brian Gionta. “He’s the type of player who never gives up and he gets rewarded for that.”
Gallagher’s next baptism of course comes now, as he enters his first NHL playoff series. He and Galchenyuk (not to mention second-year D-man Raphael Diaz) will be counted on to contribute in a very new environment that vets can describe, but only to an extent.
“They’ve gotta go out there and experience it,” Gionta said. “They’ll feel the difference in the pace, the difference in the urgency. It’s a whole new level.”
Luckily, Gallagher’s not entirely a babe in the woods. During his junior days in the Western League, he was a part of some very good Vancouver Giants teams, where the post-season tended to last a while.
“My first year in Vancouver we went to the third round and we still talk about those series,” he said. “It’s hard-fought, adjustments are made every round and it’s just fun to be a part of. Every play matters that much more. It’s gonna be cool to be back in the playoffs and feel that emotion, feel that level.”
In the Ottawa Senators, the Habs have a feisty opponent with its only collection of young talent. The Sens counter with players such as Jared Cowen, Andre Benoit and Patrick Wiercioch, all of whom won an American League championship with Binghamton in 2011.
But now it’s time to play the games and while Gallagher got a taste in junior, he also noted that he intended to have some conversations with Gionta before the series began, since the captain does have a ring from his days in New Jersey.
“I want to learn,” Gallagher said. “Gio’s a guy who has won the Stanley Cup and I want to be a sponge.”
Perhaps an award-winning sponge, at that.