Brendan Gallagher thinks back to the spring of 2014. He was 22 and completing his second season in the National Hockey League. The Canadiens put together a significant playoff run before they lost to the New York Rangers in the conference final. It was a disappointment, but Gallagher was buoyed by the confidence of youth. Surely, another chance to win the Stanley Cup awaited just around the corner.
The next one didn’t come until now.
“Older players would tell [me] how hard it was, but I was young and naive and didn’t believe them,” the Montreal right wing says. “I look back at those seven years since then, and we went through a lot: some good, some bad, some adversity for sure. It took a lot to get back here.
“You don’t know when your next opportunity will be.”
After a fast start to the 2021 season, Montreal staggered to the finish line and barely reached the playoffs. After losing three of the first four games in the first round to the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Canadiens mounted an improbable comeback and then swept the Winnipeg Jets in four straight.
Now with seven consecutive victories, the Canadiens will face either Vegas or Colorado in the Stanley Cup semi-finals. The Golden Knights lead the seven-game series 3-2 with Game 6 in the Nevada desert on Thursday night. Tampa Bay has already clinched a semi-final spot; the New York Islanders had a chance to grab the other with a win over the Boston Bruins in Game 6 on Wednesday night.
“At this stage, whoever you play is going to be a pretty complete hockey team,” Gallagher says. Montreal played within the all-Canadian North Division and has not played any of its prospective opponents this year. “The margin between winning and losing is slim. You draw on every level of experience you have gathered.”
After a day off, the Canadiens players held a meeting on Wednesday. Afterwards, Bob Gainey was brought in to address the team in the dressing room. The 67-year-old won five Stanley Cups with Montreal as a forward and another as the general manager of the Dallas Stars.
“A lot of the guys here have not been in this position,” Erik Gustafsson, a veteran defenceman acquired at the trade deadline, says. “For him to come in here and talk to us is huge. It is good for us to hear from someone who has won those big games and the Stanley Cup.”
The Canadiens were the last team from Canada to win the Stanley Cup. They accomplished the feat in 1993. In the 28 years since then, this is only the third time they have won two playoff rounds. That speaks to how difficult it is.
Although it lacks a big offensive star, Montreal has gotten by with balanced scoring, gritty defence and outstanding goaltending from Carey Price. The 33-year-old was injured and had a subpar regular season but has returned to go 8-3 in the playoffs with a .935 save percentage.
Price was hurt in the first contest of the conference final in 2014 and missed the rest of the series, which the Canadiens lost in six games.
A certain Hall of Famer, Price has spent all 14 years of his NHL career in a Montreal uniform and has yet to reach the Stanley Cup final.
“When I think back to that 2014 run, I remember seeing Carey every day,” Gallagher said. “He wasn’t healthy, but I am pretty sure he was going to play Game 7 if we would have gotten him the opportunity. He was so hungry and had an understanding [of how difficult] it was to get there. These things don’t come easy.
“I have spent nine years with him and have seen what he has gone through, what he deals with every single day, how he prepares himself, and the competitive nature in him. Those are the team members you just want to play for and just want to win for. There is not a single guy here that doesn’t feel the same way.”
Gallagher missed the last 21 games of the pandemic-abbreviated regular season with a broken thumb but is now back to his irritating self. He drives opponents to distraction with his testy demeanour and has had two goals and two assists over the last five postseason games.
Expect more of the same from him and, most likely, Price.
“There is something about greatness and great players,” Gallagher says of the netminder. “No matter what they have gone through, they will rise to the occasions. I’ve played with him long enough to see him rise to every challenge he has faced.”