MONTREAL – A day after being declared the Canadiens’ unsung hero for the 2013-14 campaign, Brian Gionta sent the squad he’s captained for the last four years into the NHL playoffs on a resounding high note.
The 12-year NHL veteran’s penalty shot tally at the 2:04 mark of overtime lifted Michel Therrien’s troops to an all-important 1-0 victory over the New York Rangers at the Bell Centre on Saturday night, one that vaulted them one point clear of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the race for home-ice advantage in their upcoming Eastern Conference Quarterfinals series. The win also helped the Canadiens reach the 100 point mark for the first time since 2007-08.
“We couldn’t have finished the regular season with a better guy. You end the year with your captain scoring on a penalty shot a day after he won the Jacques Beauchamp-Molson Trophy. You’d be hard-pressed to finish a season on a note that’s more positive than that for him, the team and the fans, too,” offered the Habs bench boss, who admitted he’ll be tuning in to the Lightning-Capitals tilt on Sunday afternoon to see if the Canadiens will retain home-ice advantage or head to Tampa Bay to begin their quest for the Stanley Cup. “With the win, we’re heading into the playoffs with a lot of confidence.”
At a time of year when leaders come to the forefront for their respective squads, the Rochester, NY native worked his magic again, lighting the lamp for the third time in the last four games with his 18th tally of the year. Gionta’s ability to come through in clutch situations like the one that presented itself on Saturday night came as no surprise to NHL sophomore, Brendan Gallagher, who has looked up to the one-time Stanley Cup champ since beginning his tenure in Montreal.
“He’s done that for 82 games. Sometimes, it goes unnoticed by a lot of people, but certainly with us in this room we understand what he brings to our team every night. He’s a very consistent player. He’s a great leader. He’s awesome in the dressing room, as well. For me, being a younger player, he’s a guy that I look to in order to gain experience. We’re happy to have him,” praised Gallagher, who logged 12:52 of ice time on Saturday night and generated four shots on goal on Rangers netminder, Cam Talbot. “Every time I have a chance to talk to him, I do it. I’m very happy that he was the hero tonight.”
It’s safe to say goaltender Carey Price felt the same way. The 26-year-old netminder, who turned aside 41 shots to register his sixth shutout of the season, is adamant Gionta has been a warrior all season long and the squad as a whole has followed suit, most notably in the team defense department.
“It was a cool way to close out the regular season. It really was the cherry on the sundae in terms of what Gio brings to this team,” mentioned Price, before addressing the Canadiens’ penchant for ensuring pucks remain clear of high-risk areas. “The majority of the Rangers’ shots came from the outside and we didn’t give up any second or third scoring chances. We take pride in blocking shots. At this point in the year all teams are doing everything they can to hit the net. The shots aren’t necessarily a reflection of actual scoring chances.”
Heroics aside, Gionta insists the Habs ultimately achieved their objective in their final outing before starting the NHL’s second season. The goal coming into the tilt was to play a solid, two-way game, and the right-winger believes that despite being outshot 41-27, the positives far outweigh the negatives.
“I thought it was a pretty good effort all the way around. There were mistakes made, but that happens every game. The biggest thing is that we’re playing well. Carey gave us a chance. He made some big saves for us. I like the way we sit right now,” offered Gionta, who will be making his 11th trip to the postseason in 2013-14. “It’s a huge win. We wanted to push for home ice once we clinched. It’s pretty important. We’ve been looking for it all year. We’ll sit back now, and wait to see what happens.”
As will the rest of Montreal with much anticipation.
Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.
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