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Canadiens' Gallagher to return for Winter Classic

by Arpon Basu

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Brendan Gallagher could not be coming back to the Montreal Canadiens lineup at a better moment.

The fact that his return also coincides with the 2016 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on Friday (1 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, TVA Sports) is a nice bonus.

"I think when you look at this event, it's cool to bring in your family and friends and get an opportunity to be at a venue like this," Gallagher said. "Like I said from the start, I wouldn't come back if I didn't feel like I could help the team. I didn't want to come back for selfish reasons. The doctors helped me to come back and play, and now hopefully I can contribute."

Aside from the grand stage Gallagher will use to end his 17-game absence recovering from surgery to repair two fractured fingers on his left hand, the Canadiens desperately need what he brings to their lineup, especially in an important game against the rival Boston Bruins with first place in the Atlantic Division up for grabs.

Although the loss of goaltender Carey Price has been cited most often to explain the Canadiens' dreadful month of December, it could be argued Gallagher's absence has hurt just as much, if not more.

"That's the plan; get him back and get back to playing the way we were playing at the beginning of the season," Canadiens center Torrey Mitchell said. "So that's the plan."

The Canadiens were 16-4-2 when Gallagher was injured Nov. 22 blocking a slap shot off the stick of New York Islanders defenseman Johnny Boychuk. They enter the Winter Classic at 21-15-3, with two wins in their past 13 games.

Gallagher's value to the Canadiens, if it was ever in doubt, has never been clearer, and his teammates have never needed him more.

"Obviously, a healthy Brendan helps our team," Canadiens left wing Lars Eller said. "It helps our depth, it helps a lot of things. Everybody brings something different to this team, and I think early in the year that was really one of our strengths. Hopefully, we can get back to that very soon."

The Canadiens scored 78 goals in the 22 games Gallagher has played, an average of 3.55 per game. Since he was injured, the Canadiens have scored 31 goals in 17 games, an average of 1.82 per game. Gallagher alone can't account for a nearly 50 percent drop in Montreal's offense, but there is a certain correlation that can be made.

Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty and center Tomas Plekanec have felt the loss of their linemate more than anyone else. Pacioretty has scored two goals in his past 13 games, and Plekanec ended a career-worst 21-game goal drought Monday at the Tampa Bay Lightning.

"We've been lacking that, I guess, that energy and that extra grit that it takes to score those dirty goals," Pacioretty said. "It's a tight league where you don't see too many fancy goals anymore. A lot of them are dirty, and a lot of them sometimes he doesn't get rewarded with the goal, but he's doing a lot of the dirty work down low that helps out his linemates and his teammates.

"So to get a guy like this back is very important for our team."

Though it's probably nice to feel needed, these might not be the ideal circumstances for an injured player to return under. If Gallagher felt pressure playing his first game in five weeks, this idea that the Canadiens have fallen apart because of his absence would only add to it.

But Gallagher doesn't see it that way, so it's unlikely to affect him.

"In no way do I think I'm the answer; I just want to be a part of the solution," Gallagher said. "I think when you look at the way the guys have been playing, there have been certain games that weren't great, and there are also games where they didn't get the result they wanted, but they were playing good hockey."

Gallagher probably can't play the role of savior, but his return does bring balance to the Canadiens' forward lines. At practice at Gillette Stadium on Thursday, coach Michel Therrien brought Gallagher back with Pacioretty and Plekanec, which in turn allowed him to reunite a third line of David Desharnais, Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann that began the season on fire.

Since Gallagher's injury, Therrien has constantly been shuffling his forward lines after barely touching them through the first 22 games. The relief of having Gallagher back was clear on Therrien's face.

"When you're missing players in key positions, like it or not, it forces players to change roles," Therrien said. "You can overcome that over a short period of time, but in the long term, it's not going to work.

"The fact Gallagher is coming back will allow players to go back to their proper roles."

It couldn't come at a better moment for the Canadiens, who have seen their massive division lead vanish and are a few weeks away from Price's return.

And if Gallagher can help begin the turnaround with a win against their fiercest rival in the biggest regular-season game on the NHL schedule, the Canadiens would take that too.

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