BROSSARD, Quebec – The Montreal Canadiens have already overcome what many considered would be their worst-case scenario this season.
The loss of goaltender Carey Price for three weeks would have been disastrous for the Canadiens a season ago, but they came out of it with a 5-2-2 record and a newfound confidence in how they play as a team in front of Price.
Now that Price is back the Canadiens face a new, entirely different challenge.
The news announced Tuesday that top-line right wing Brendan Gallagher will be out a minimum of six weeks following surgery to repair two fractured fingers on his left hand is a serious blow for a team that has seemingly matured this season. Gallagher has played such a central role in that maturation process.
The line Gallagher forms with Max Pacioretty and Tomas Plekanec has combined for 59 points, making it one of the most productive lines in the NHL and a big reason why the Canadiens no longer rely solely on Price’s heroics to win games.
“He does so many things well and he’s important to our team,” forward Dale Weise said of Gallagher, “but he’s the glue guy on that line.”
In fact, Gallagher is the glue guy on basically any line on which he plays, and has been ever since he and coach Michel Therrien arrived in Montreal at the beginning of the 2012-13 season. Whenever Therrien has needed to jump start one of his more offensive lines, Gallagher has often been the one asked to make it happen.
Gallagher has played every game this season with Pacioretty and Plekanec, not only because the combination has worked so well, but also because none of the other lines have done so badly that it required an infusion of the ultimate catalyst.
There are many reasons why Gallagher makes his teammates so much better, and they are the same reasons why he will be difficult to replace.
Here are a few of them:
One thing Gallagher’s teammates have always said is they know exactly what to expect from him when they are on the ice together.
Watching him play makes it clear why that’s the case.
If there’s a loose puck, Gallagher will retrieve it. If there’s a shot being taken, Gallagher will get to the front of the net. If an opponent has the puck, Gallagher will apply pressure.
It is predictable for his teammates, but harassing to his opponents. And Gallagher’s presence also means his teammates don’t necessarily have to worry about some of the less pleasant aspects of the game that Gallagher does so well.
“It’s just the compete level; it’s as high as it gets,” forward Lars Eller said. “It’s his willingness to compete and he’s consistent doing it, he’s relentless in the way he plays with and without the puck. Another thing is he’s easy to play with because he’s so direct in his game, there’s not too much thinking. He always goes on his first thought.”
Gallagher is among the most annoying opponents in the NHL, regularly taking abuse from opposing goalies and defensemen in order to gain an advantage near the net, both physical and mental.
It is a trait he makes more effective by smiling whenever he sees he’s managed to get under an opponent’s skin.
Having a player like that on your line not only provides a tangible advantage because there’s always a teammate around the net, but also because opposing defenders are often times more focused on getting back at Gallagher than they are defending his linemates. While defenders are busy cross-checking Gallagher in front of the net, for example, Pacioretty might gain the extra half second he needs to let go of a shot.
That responsibility will now fall on Devante Smith-Pelly, who will get the first shot at filling Gallagher’s spot on the top line.
“Just get in the crease, I guess, and smile every time I get hit in the head,” Smith-Pelly joked when asked how he can replicate Gallagher’s annoying tendencies. “It’s obviously going to be tough to replace that, so I guess we’ll have to do it by committee.”
Therrien had the option of using Alexander Semin in Gallagher’s spot on the top line but instead opted to go with Smith-Pelly, a player who has spent the bulk of his career in a bottom-six role aside from a handful of games he played with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry with the Anaheim Ducks.
The problem Therrien sees with using Semin there is that playing on a top line doesn’t only require offensive skills, but also the ability to counter the skills of the players you will be facing. Gallagher does this so well, applying dogged pressure on the puck when his team doesn’t have it, which is rare when he is on the ice.
“Most of the time when you play with Pacioretty and Plekanec you’re going to face top players, face top defenseman,” Therrien said. “You have to make sure you’re very responsible, and that’s something a guy like Smith-Pellly is able to do; he’s very responsible with and without the puck. He makes percentage plays, he can go to the net and play physical. When his pace is there, as we’ve seen this year, he’s tough to play against.”
The compete level Eller was referring to can have a contagious effect on Gallagher’s teammates, and the play he was injured on is a perfect example.
New York Islanders defenseman Johnny Boychuk has one of the hardest shots in the NHL, but Gallagher was undeterred. He placed himself in front of it and broke two fingers as a result.
Considering the way he plays the game, it’s difficult to believe it is the first major injury of Gallagher’s career. But now the Canadiens will need to draw inspiration from elsewhere.
“If Gallagher is able to block a shot with his hand he’ll do it for his teammates,” Therrien said. “’He’s a warrior, and it’s one of the reasons a guy like Gallagher is in the National Hockey League, and he’s not only in the NHL but he’s having success in the NHL. It’s because he has courage and a heart the size of the Bell Centre.”
That is a difficult player to replace. The Canadiens will find out just how difficult during the next six weeks.