MONTREAL - Brendan Gallagher was looking forward to putting his injury woes behind him in 2016-17.
The 25-year-old winger was coming off a season in which he missed 17 games with a pair of broken fingers that required surgery and another 12 with a groin injury, and was hoping to resume his role as the Canadiens' sparkplug and most likeable agitator this year. Solid offensive production aside, Gallagher's knack for getting under his opponents' skin is an important intangible that has endeared the Canadiens' alternate captain to both fans and teammates alike.
But just after ringing in the New Year, in an away game against the Dallas Stars, Gallagher's hand got in the way of a booming Shea Weber shot, and - as Yogi Berra would say - it was déjà vu all over again. The towering defenseman's howitzer fractured his teammate's hand - the same one that had been broken a year prior - and ended up putting Gallagher on the shelf for 18 games.
In many ways, the injury was unavoidable. After all, Gallagher has a penchant for getting up close and personal with opposing netminders, despite the risk of incoming shots on net and the requisite punishment that awaits any player planted in the blue paint. But not even a second fracture to the same hand could alter the way the Habs' character monster approaches the game.
"I can't change the way I play. If I stop putting myself in those spots, I won't be very effective. Injuries are going to happen and it's unfortunate that I've had to undergo two operations in two years, but you have to learn to live with it and move on," he explained in January, just 10 days after the fateful collision between hand and puck.
Gallagher's season up to that point was a mix of hot streaks and more challenging stretches. He started the year flying, scoring two goals in the season opener against Buffalo, and went on to record nine points in his first 10 games. The next 10 were trying, with Gallagher collecting only one point - an assist - before registering seven points in the next 10 outings. After that, Gallagher potted just a single goal before getting hurt, albeit an important one - a late game-tying goal against Florida that led to an eventual overtime win.
Video: MTL@FLA: Gallagher finishes the rush to tie the game
Still, ask anyone on the Canadiens roster to name the player on the team with the most heart, and chances are they'll say Gallagher. Despite his dip in offensive productivity, no one would accuse the former Vancouver Giant of a lack of effort this season. Even though he missed nearly one quarter of the season, the 5-foot-9 ball of energy still ranked second on the team in shots, with 187, and set a career high in hits with 69. He could feel he was on the right track and that, the more he played after returning, things started to feel more like normal.
"The more and more comfortable I got with my hand with the way it changed, the results started to come and I started to get better," admitted Gallagher, who played in his 300th career NHL game when he returned to action against Boston on February 12.
His renewed confidence allowed him to finish the season on a high note. In 13 games in March, he notched four goals and six assists for 10 points - including a four-point night, also against Florida. In the playoffs, Gallagher added a goal and two assists in six first-round games against the Rangers.
While many would credit his heart and hard work for the turnaround, Gallagher pointed out that having a steady set of linemates - he was flanked by Tomas Plekanec and Paul Byron for much of the final dozen regular season games and the series against the Rangers - played a big part.
"That's been really nice. Having a role and having set linemates has really helped my game. I've been able to build on it game after game. I think that's been important, building that chemistry," Gallagher proclaimed to NHL.com during the playoffs. "Having that chemistry between the three of us, I think it's been a big step for all three of us in the right direction."
While the injury may have frustrated him, fans of the pesky forward should be comforted to know that he took this year's adversity in stride, and plans on pushing ahead with as much drive and determination as before - if not more.
"That one was tough. It was definitely frustrating to go through, having to deal with that in back-to-back seasons and learn from it," Gallagher recounted. "It was a difficult part of my career, you could say, but you have to deal with it and you have to be able to move on. There's no changing it. You adapt."
Video: Brendan Gallagher on battling back from injury