After sitting out 17 games following surgery on two fractured fingers on his left hand stemming from a blocked shot on Nov. 22 against the Islanders, a span in which the Habs scored just 33 goals, the 23-year-old Gallagher injected life into the Canadiens’ front lines using his speed, fearlessness and knack for agitation to key a 5-1 win over the Boston Bruins in the 2016 Winter Classic on Friday.
For instance, the 5-foot-9 winger put himself in Zdeno Chara’s headspace throughout the afternoon, waging an afternoon-long battle against the 6'9" behemoth blueliner. The pair, which has some memorable callback footage over Gallagher's four NHL seasons, reached an apex late in the first period when he attacked the net on the power play, only to find himself wrapped up in the big defenseman’s arms and tackled to the ice.
“I was anticipating that would happen,” Gallagher said after the game. “It was nice to be back.”
While Chara may not agree, many of the Montreal players testified to just how much Gallagher’s presence means to a team that was mired in such a long struggle.
“The way he plays, the energy he brings, his leadership, we all feed off of that,” linemate Max Pacioretty said. “He’s a player we all admire the way he plays, the way he handles himself. And for him to come back and have some fresh legs and play the way he did in his first game back, it really meant a lot. I just feel like when I see him next to me, you know he wasn’t here through the struggles, so he kind of has had an extra smile on his face, he doesn’t really know what’s going on on the road, it’s hard for him to be as down as us. So for him to come in with that energy and play that well, and we all fed off of that I think.”
Pacioretty and center Tomas Plekanec were major beneficiaries of Gallagher’s return, as the trio combined for a pair of goals and six points on the day, with both goals being highlight-worthy clips.
The first, a pop-up of a pass from Pacioretty, found the back of the net when Gallagher batted it from at the top of the crease behind Boston goalie Tuukka Rask to give the Canadiens a 3-0 lead with his 10th goal in his 23rd game of the season.
After the Bruins cut their deficit to 3-1, the diminutive forward used his speed to take the air out of the stadium, grabbing a breakout pass from Plekanec and racing up the sideboards. When defenseman Dennis Seidenberg showed his hand and committed to Gallagher, he casually sent a pass through the middle of the ice to Pacioretty, who buried it for a 4-1 score.
“Well, things that Gally is doing, not too many players in the league can do those” Plekanec said after the game. “So, obviously you try to take advantage of it and we played so many games together that the chemistry is there and like I said, it’s nothing spectacular, nothing fancy, but it’s a game that you used to play before and you can tell.”
For his coach, Gallagher’s return allowed him to press reset on his lines, which had been shifted when he went down with injury.
“There's always chemistry that you're looking for,” Michel Therrien said postgame. “And one thing that we know with the lines we put together at training camp and we start the year we get that chemistry as a team. So that the fact that we get Gally back, we're able to get that chemistry with even, not only the Plekanec line but with David Desharnais' line and [Alex Galchenyuk’s], they're doing some good things, too.”
As one of the league’s most effective possession players–he ranks 25th among NHLers with a Corsi For % of 61.0–Gallagher is an indispensable tool for Therrien and his charges. When the final buzzer sounded, he went to the locker room with a goal and an assist in 18:12 of time on ice, first star of the game honors and possibly added a few more gray hairs to Chara’s noggin.
Oh, and a familiar smile that his teammates know is just another sign of what he brings to the table and is plenty contagious.
“For me coming back, I said I wasn't going to come back if I couldn't contribute, and I was happy to be a part of it tonight,” he said. “I mean, the way the night went, couldn't really ask for anything more. I just think it was a great team effort. We all had so much fun. You can't undervalue the smiles that everyone had coming into the rink.”
With the page turned on a December many Canadiens players are ready to forget, Brendan Gallagher’s return was just the fresh start they needed to get the New Year rolling.