When something works out exactly the way you mapped it, the prevailing feeling can’t be anything other than satisfaction.
Granted, some decisions are more straightforward than others, and when the Montreal Canadiens’ chief talent spotter Trevor Timmins stood up at the 2012 draft, the name he announced wasn’t exactly unknown to the hockey world.
Less than two years later, Alex Galchenyuk, all of 20 years old, a shimmering bundle of puck skills and derring-do, has edged his way into the playoff spotlight; at this rate he is in danger of monopolizing it.
Since sitting out more than six weeks with an undisclosed lower-body injury – the time lapse suggests a sprain in a medial collateral ligament – the American wunderkind has ramped from zero to beast mode in the space of four games.
The goals – an overtime winner in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final, his second game of the playoffs, a power-play tip-in to open the scoring in Game 5 – are shiny objects that catch the eye.
However, it’s the little things that impress his teammates.
To wit: in Game 4, Galchenyuk found himself chasing a loose puck deep in his corner, realized he was going to get there first, and immediately sent a gorgeous, no-look diagonal pass 150 feet and very nearly sprang linemate Brian Gionta for a breakaway (not to be unkind to Gionta, but a taller player likely sees the puck land directly on his blade).
It was hubris – the good kind.
“He has a lot of confidence with the puck. The little passes he can make, the subtle little plays, it’s pretty impressive to watch,” said teammate David Desharnais, himself no slouch in the talent department. “The way he cuts, the way he plays the game, when you see a guy just grab the puck the way he does, you know he’s on a different level.”
Galchenyuk, who was born in the U.S. on one of the many career stops of his peripatetic Belarussian dad’s hockey career, is also plainly a guy who doesn’t handle losing well.
After hitting the crossbar in the late going of Game 4 – a game the Habs would ultimately lose in overtime – he said “I can’t overthink about that play. I’ve got to come out and make a difference the next game.”
Well, mission accomplished.
Thanks in part to the efforts of their dynamic youngster, the Habs go into Game 6 against the Rangers in Manhattan on Thursday with plenty of good vibrations.
The Montreal dressing room was largely deserted on Wednesday as the team held an optional workout before flying to Manhattan. The only tidbit of news was the fact suspended winger Brandon Prust was on the plane and is confirmed to be in the lineup. Who he will replace is unclear, although there was no medical update on winger Dale Weise, who was left woozy by a hit from New York’s John Moore that saw Moore suspended for two games.
The Habs, as they keep saying, have been here before; two weeks ago they faced the heavily-favoured Boston Bruins in a must-win Game 7.
The results are widely known.
“If we play the way we did in Boston,” Desharnais said, “I like our chances.”
The talk, as it has often been in these playoffs, was about the importance of starting the game with purpose.
It was reinforced in Game 5.
Galchenyuk’s redirection of a P.K. Subban blast 1 minute and 48 seconds in got the Bell Centre rocking; it was also the first of several shifts the winger – who should eventually shift to centre, perhaps even as soon as next season – took on the power play.
After severely limited minutes in Game 4, he played nearly as much on the man-advantage as the much more senior Tomas Plekanec.
In effect, Galchenyuk’s strong play has effectively nudged trade deadline acquisition Thomas Vanek down the lineup; as Galchenyuk’s ice time has risen, Vanek’s has fallen.
But with three points in four games – and six in nine career playoff tilts – it’s hard to argue with what the second-year player brings to the table.
“He’s playing his best hockey, he’s being dangerous, he’s creating scoring chances … he got the game-winner in overtime in New York going to the net, he scored [Tuesday] night going to the net, he’s willing to go to those areas,” said teammate and former linemate Lars Eller.
Asked what the best part of Galchenyuk’s game is, having observed it on ice level and at close range, the Dane said: “Making plays in tight, when he doesn’t have a lot of room to manoeuvre – he seems to find a way to get the puck to a linemate’s stick. He’s always around the puck.”
It’s an observation that coach Michel Therrien echoed in complimenting Galchenyuk, whose play makes him impossible for the Rangers coaches in their game-planning meetings.
That Galchenyuk is an offensive threat is nothing new, but the intensity he’s brought to the playoffs – he’s still a kid, and getting stronger, don’t forget – hints at bigger things ahead, whether the Habs’ playoff run ends at Madison Square Garden on Thursday or not.
“He’s been an impressive player since the first day he came here to Montreal. When you’re a top-three pick, you have something special, and we can all see that’s exactly what he is – special,” Desharnais said. “He just has so much talent, maybe the most of any player I’ve seen. He’s still young though. He’ll develop a lot more, but to come back after missing a bunch of weeks, it’s his fourth game of the playoffs and he’s calm. He doesn’t always make the correct play, but that will come with time.”