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Canadiens counting on Gallagher, Galchenyuk

by Arpon Basu /

BROSSARD, Quebec -- The Montreal Canadiens did not make any drastic changes to a team that finished in second place in the Eastern Conference yet was knocked out of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in five games.

There is hope for improvement in Montreal in spite of the relatively calm summer, and a lot of that hope is based on two rookies from last season taking another leap forward in their development.

Forwards Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk were big reasons the Canadiens were able to jump from last in the East to second in the span of one season, and with that experience they will be counted on to help drive Montreal back into the playoffs from the new, difficult Atlantic Division.

"I played one year. It was an OK year but it can get better," Gallagher said Wednesday when the Canadiens opened training camp with medicals and physical testing. "I have a lot to accomplish in the League and things to get better at and learn. So I'm looking forward to this year; there are lots of areas of my game that can grow and I just want to be part of a winning team."

Gallagher was a finalist for the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year, so for him to call his first season "OK" might seem like a major understatement. Not to Gallagher.

"We lost in the first round, so there are lots of areas to grow there," he said. "Just speaking about the playoff experience I think we're all going to learn from it. The emotion level was so high in that series, we're going to learn and be better from that experience. Going into this year we want to build on that in the regular season, and when we get into the playoffs we'll look back on last year and how we handled it and maybe see what we can do differently this time around."

In spite of the disappointment of the playoffs, to call Gallagher's rookie season anything other than spectacular would be selling it short. A long shot to make the team in training camp, Gallagher forced his way onto the Canadiens, and after sitting out opening night as a healthy scratch he became an integral part of coach Michel Therrien's lineup.

Gallagher tied for the team lead in goals with 15 and was fourth among NHL rookies with 28 points, using a determined, almost belligerent style to get to the front of the net, making the lives of defensemen and goaltenders miserable in spite of his 5-foot-9 frame.

"It's not easy to play against him," said Canadiens summer acquisition Daniel Briere, who faced Gallagher with the Philadelphia Flyers last season. "You kind of hate him when he's smiling back at you right after he gets hit in the face."

That irritable style resulted in Gallagher becoming a target of much bigger players, but it is something he insists he won't change this season.

"I'm going to play the same way," he said. "I know I'm going to get hit, I know I'm going to take a bit of a beating, but to me if I'm not playing that way I'm not a very good player. Quite simply, I can't play any other way and play in the League."

Galchenyuk, on the other hand, said he does want to change the way he plays a little bit, even though his finish to his rookie season suggests there isn't much tweaking necessary.

Over the final month of 2012-13, Galchenyuk had 12 points in 14 games and showed real signs of the talent that made him the third pick in the 2012 NHL Draft. But prior to that late-season flourish playing on Lars Eller's wing, Galchenyuk went through dry spells of 13 and 18 games without a goal, something he would like to eliminate this season.

"Looking back at last year, I just have to stay consistent," Galchenyuk said. "There were times when I didn't score for [13] games and didn't score for 18 games, then I had a stretch where I scored quite a bit towards the end of the year. So I want to bring that momentum from last year into this year."

Playing in the NHL as an 18-year-old, Galchenyuk was sheltered by Therrien from difficult situations in an effort to maintain his confidence. Galchenyuk rarely began a shift in his own end and often watched the end of close games from the bench, which is a big reason he said Wednesday he wants to improve his defensive play.

Therrien said Galchenyuk's role will increase, except he did not divulge to what extent.

"We can't forget Alex is 19 years old and he's still in a period of development," Therrien said last week at the Canadiens' annual charity golf tournament. "We always want young players to run before they walk, and it's normal. But life doesn't work that way. You have to learn to walk before you run.

"So in Alex's case, I have a plan for him and I can't forget he's a young man who's only 19. So I'm going to continue to develop him so he becomes a very good hockey player."

Galchenyuk's lack of ice time was a constant topic of conversation last season, and he grew somewhat tired of answering questions about it. Then, on his first day of training camp Wednesday, he was answering them again.

"I trust the coaches, they know what they're doing," he said, much like he did most of last season. "I just need to go out there every time I'm on the ice and make something happen."

The Canadiens will be counting on Galchenyuk and Gallagher to make things happen on a regular basis. Young players P.K. Subban, Max Pacioretty and Eller could make big strides, but the progression of Montreal's two sophomores will have a big impact on whether the Canadiens will be able to use the lessons they learned in last season's early playoff exit.

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