The moment offered a tantalizing glimpse of what the future holds for Montreal Canadiens fans, it started with a backtracking P.K. Subban.
The defenceman made a heady read to grab a loose puck in his own end – defensive partner Francis Bouillon had edged a Carolina Hurricanes forward toward the boards – wheeled away and steered it onto the stick of Montreal teammate Lars Eller.
This happened with about two minutes expired in the third period of a scoreless game.
Eller made a quick burst up the middle and scooped it on to 19-year-old Alex Galchenyuk, who took care of the rest.
First he exploded away from back-checking forward Riley Nash, then put a luscious toe-drag on defenceman Bobby Sanguinetti at full speed, cut inside and dished off into space as Michal Jordan came over to cut away the centre of the ice.
All that was left for linemate Brandon Prust was to skate in, switch the puck to his forehand and pop it by goalie Cam Ward’s blocker.
One moment of scintillating genius, one game-winning-goal, one winning streak extended to four games.
How skilled is Galchenyuk?
This much: Prust said he sometimes can’t help himself from watching him like an ice-level spectator.
“He’s got a lot of tools, when he’s going it’s pretty to watch and you have to make sure you’re not just sitting there watching. Sometimes I find I’m just watching him dangle and I’m not moving my feet,” the Habs’ hard-nosed forward said.
Suffice it to say that Prust snapped out of his reverie long enough to put the Habs into a lead they would not relinquish.
“I had a lot of speed going in . . . I think the defenceman poked it away or something, I’m not really sure what happened, then I saw the puck in the net and Prusty went nuts so I knew it was definitely a big goal for us,” Galchenyuk said.
When it was pointed out to him that he’s supposed to say he meant to do that, he just smiled.
“I obviously wanted to make a good play, but I didn’t expect it’s going to be like that,” he said.
Replays showed that he’s either being modest or has very poor short-term memory – he perceptibly passed the puck off in heavy traffic.
It was a typical enough play on a night where the teenager, drafted third overall in last summer’s amateur draft, looked as comfortable as he has this season.
Coach Michel Therrien paid off the assured with more ice time, Galchenyuk topped the 12-minute mark for the first time in more than two weeks and scored his ninth point in 15 games.
“As a young player, playing in your first year, you get more comfortable with each game, I mean, I’m trying to get back to what I was doing in junior a little bit, making better plays and maybe adjusting a little bit more to the speed and the time,” he said, “I think I did a pretty good job today.”
Both the Habs and Canes had won three straight coming into their head-to-head contest, but the Habs broke a tight-checking game wide open with that goal.
Ten minutes later, Tomas Plekanec scored his team-leading eighth with a vicious slapshot from an acute angle that Ward probably should have handled – instead it bounced off his left collarbone and dribbled into the net.
No one should have been surprised that Plekanec found the scoresheet, he has feasted on the Hurricanes throughout his career, notching 31 points in 28 career games.
And just 18 seconds after Plekanec struck, Ward committed an egregious blunder, failing to corral a long Max Pacioretty shoot-in from the Montreal side of centre-ice, letting it bounce in front of him and into the net past his trapper.
It was Pacioretty’s first goal of the year – the 33-goal man of a year ago needed that one, the relief at his good fortune was palpable.
Peter Budaj logged his first shutout in a Habs uniform in relief of the flu-ridden Carey Price, who was well enough to back Budaj up and may well have made the play of the night, an around-the-world glove stop of a clear-in that a Carolina player rifled into the Montreal bench (it likely saved RDS ice-level analyst Marc Denis some dental work).
Montreal has been full value during their recent streak allowing just three even-strength goals,killed off 11 of the last 12 opposition power-plays and have dominated possession statistics.
Coach Michel Therrien’s aggressive forecheck and defensive system clearly had the Canes frustrated.
“We didn’t have it. They play a system to lull you to sleep, I honestly didn’t feel like there was much energy out of both sides. It was 0-0 in the third . . . the young kid made a nice play with the drag and Prusty scored, and then from there we just didn’t get anything back offensively,” said Carolina captain Eric Staal, who had 34 points in 30 career games against Montreal coming in.
Added Carolina coach Kirk Muller, a former Habs captain: “We’ve just got to forget this one, the guys have been good, they’ve been going hard, it’s a little wake-up call . . . give them credit . . . their gap was good tonight, they didn’t give us much space.”
The Hurricanes had to play without centre Jeff Skinner, defencemen Joni Pitkanen and Tim Gleason, although when the Canadiens are in this kind of form at home, it's debatable they would have made a difference (the Habs have won a league-leading seven games at the friendly confines of the Bell Centre).
It was as perfect a start as the Habs dared to hope for as they embark on a stretch that will see them play three games in four nights, six in the next 10 days and a total of 12 in 21 days.
Before the game, Price said he became accustomed to playing three games in four nights or four games in five when he was with the Tri-City Americans of the Western Hockey League, and that after surviving those stretches NHL travel – charter flights, people to lug your gear – is a snap.
“In junior it’s a lot harder, the bus trips are upwards of nine hours in the four games in five nights type situation, flying to New York takes an hour and bit, so it’s not that bad,” the 25-year-old said.
Pacioretty played at the University of Michigan, so his first exposure to the delights of a pro schedule came with the Habs, and with their minor league affiliate in Hamilton.
And what he discovered can seem counter-intuitive: staying active helps forestall fatigue.
“When you’re body’s drained after three games in four nights of back-to-back, what’s really important is you can’t let yourself think you’re too tired to play,” he said. “I think the way you get out of that is by working harder, the coaches have done a good job of making sure we get in here, and we’re not just laying around at home like couch potatoes.”
And while it’s natural to think that players like the 19-year-old Galchenyuk and 20-year-old teammate Brendan Gallagher will have an easier time handling the rigours of the compressed schedule, Pacioretty said that’s not necessarily the case.
“When I was younger I would find myself just completely drained after games, sweating under my suit and I couldn’t even get up the next morning,” he said. “Knowing what to eat, knowing how to take care of your body, knowing what to do after the game to recover, it’s something that comes with experience.”
Before Monday’s tilt, Montreal played on Saturday, but that game followed a day off after a two-game Florida road swing.
The schedule-makers have been kind to Montreal in the early going: 10 of their first 14 games were played on home ice.
But now it’s about to get tricky.
Montreal will play eight of its next 11 on the road, and though the travel isn’t as exhausting as it is in the junior ranks, the Habs’ 3-1-1 record away from home will be sorely tested.