NHL.com will periodically be doing a series called "Five Questions With …," a Q&A with some of the key figures in the game today aimed at gaining insight into their lives and careers.
Brian Gionta's 2011-12 season was limited to 31 games due to bicep surgery. The Montreal Canadiens captain would have to watch from the press box as his team stumbled and slumped all the way to a last-place finish in the Eastern Conference.
One year later, Gionta is healthy, playing in every game, and helping the Canadiens rise toward the top of the Eastern Conference standings.
The difference between last season and this season is striking, and the feeling Gionta has about them is exactly what you would expect.
Last season was his worst in the NHL; this season could turn into one of his best.
Before the Canadiens got started on what is arguably the biggest week of their season with games at Pittsburgh on Tuesday, Boston on Wednesday and at home against the New York Rangers on Saturday, Gionta spoke to NHL.com about last season, this season and, of course, the Canadiens-Bruins rivalry that will add another chapter this week in NBC Sports Network's Wednesday Night Rivalry game.
Here are Five Questions with … Brian Gionta:
Are you surprised by what you guys have been able to do this season, that it's happening like this after finishing last in the Eastern Conference last season?
"No, I don't think so. I mean, we were a team that was plagued by injuries last year and some other things spiraled away, but for the most part we've got the guys in that room, veteran leadership guys, that play the game the right way. It's just a matter of getting back to that.
"We had injuries and people in places that maybe they're not used to being in, but the changes made over the summer have been great. We were excited in the summer by the changes that were made and it was tough to wait it out during the lockout, wait to see the results of it, but I think they've been great."
You were one of those guys that was banged up last season; in fact you played only 31 games. When you factor in that and couple it with being the captain of a team that was struggling, does 2011-12 go down as your worst season in the NHL, if not your entire hockey career?
"Sure thing it does. It was my longest injury of my career and it was frustrating that way. It was frustrating not being able to get out there and help the guys, find ways to turn things around, or just be a part of it. And it's the first time in my career to not make the playoffs. So, a lot of things were frustrating for sure, and to be on the sidelines and not have much say, it was really tough.
"You want to be in the battle with the guys. You want to be right in the thick of things. You want to be there for your teammates. It was frustrating not to be there."
Do you have a special appreciation for Brendan Gallagher and what he's able to do on the ice because maybe, just maybe, he reminds you of yourself when you were starting out in the NHL?
"Absolutely. He's a great, great talent. He works extremely hard. So, for sure I do. The things he is able to do, how hard he plays the game, the way he plays the game -- I really enjoy watching him play. I have such respect for the way he plays because that's the way I have always played it. It's great when you see guys that are doing that, especially guys that are smaller and surprising people.
"Overall, the youthfulness and the energy we have, it definitely rubs off on guys. We have a great mix. We have some veteran guys, but we also have some youth that sparks things up and brings that energy night in and night out. It's a testament to where the organization is going and the type of people we have, the depth of our organization and what's coming along."
Michel Therrien different before he got to Montreal and if so, why and how has it changed?
"Not at all. I'm the type of guy, I like to find out for myself. You get information from people, but I never had a preconceived notion of what he was going to be like, how he was going to be. He's been great. He's balanced a lot of things. The system we're playing, it keeps guys accountable. He's been great with the scheduling as far as it being a compressed schedule and you have to be smart with time off or optional skates. The balance between enough rest and too much rest has been perfect. Things like that, he has just been great with."
"Oh, it's so much better. When you have two competitive teams, that's what feeds and fuels the rivalry. If you had a one-sided affair all the time, the rivalry wouldn't be what it is. You see it with all the rivalries, no matter who it is, when both teams are competitive and both teams are at the height of their game, that's when it's the most fueled, that's when it has the most passion and that's when it has the most juice to it.
"It's tough to place whether this rivalry is the best for me. I had the Devils-Rangers and that was a huge one with a lot of animosity. I had Boston College vs. Boston University and that was huge, too. They're all different in their own way but they're all exciting. That's what makes sports so great, is having those rivalries."