FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Alex Galchenyuk was talking, yet again, about the struggles for his Montreal Canadiens.
The losing streak, in stark contrast with their season-opening success. The tumble from the top of the Atlantic Division. Their rudderless existence minus star goalie Carey Price and top line winger Brendan Gallagher. And, in the hours leading up to the NHL’s Winter Classic, whether a few days in Foxborough could be the break they needed to flip the season back on the positive track.
“I think there’s so much talk about trying to switch it around …”
Galchenyuk suddenly stopped talking. His body lurched forward, his face brightened with laughter.
Dale Weise, his teammate, had poured the better part of an ice cold bottle of water down the back of his pants.
“We had a lot of fun today in practice,” said Galchenyuk.
For a team that had faced the kind of adversity that the Canadiens had in the last month, the vibe around the team at the Winter Classic was unmistakably light, which is what the Classic does. They weren’t the first team spiraling down the standings into the Jan. 1 game – please recall the Washington Capitals’ losing streak chronicled on HBO – and each time it happens, you see the same transformation: Getting out of their routines, spending time with family and playing on the pond again naturally brightens the mood.
“It couldn’t have come at a better time for us. It’s perfect atmosphere for us. When you lose nine or 10 in a row, it’s not fun coming to the rink,” said Weise.
“A stage like this where everybody can get up for and it’s refreshed, right? Your family and friends there and everybody watching. So you want to be at your best. I think when we’re at our best, there are not too many teams in the League that can compete with us,” said defenseman P.K. Subban.
The brief Christmas break was the Habs’ previous chance to reboot their season.
“You go into the break, you try to come back with a fresh start, and you lose to Washington. So this is the next fresh start,” said Weise. “This is another chance to hit the reset button, to reboot.”
The difference between the Winter Classic and the holiday break was one particular reinforcement: Brendan Gallagher, whose return to the lineup helped propel the Canadiens to their dominating 5-1 win over the rival Boston Bruins at Gillette Stadium.
“You can't undervalue the smiles that everyone had coming into the rink. Starting yesterday at practice, everyone chipped in. It was a great team effort,” said Gallagher, who missed a month with a broken hand. “For me coming back, I said I wasn't going to come back if I couldn't contribute, and I was happy to be a part of it.”
Captain Max Pacioretty was happy to see Gallagher back on his line, and playing like Gallagher plays – including getting rag-dolled by Zdeno Chara of the Bruins at one point.
“I didn’t miss trying to pull Chara off of him,” he said. “But I miss him going to the paint, and smiling with his bloody gums.
“I told him that if he has bloody gums, he must have gingivitis. He didn’t seem to like it.”
When Gallagher went out, the Canadiens were 16-4-2, in first place in the Atlantic by nine points. They’re currently three points in back of the streaking Florida Panthers as both teams head into action on Tuesday night.
Could the Winter Classic win over Boston, the return of Gallagher and all the happy vibes of last weekend lead to a change in fortunes for the Habs?
“Hopefully. We’ll have to see. This is a tough league,” said Subban.
(That it is: Weise, the team’s merry prankster, could miss up to 10 games with an upper body injury suffered in the Classic.)
“You try to grab momentum whenever you can, and build off wins,” said Subban. “We’re going to try and do that.”
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