BROSSARD – Despite taking a back seat to younger, flashier teammates, Brian Gionta is still one of his team’s biggest assets at both ends of the ice.
Hockey is a not always the safest sport to play, and those who have suffered injuries on the ice may not totally agree with the statement “What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.” Still, Canadiens captain Brian Gionta has managed to overcome two serious arm injuries in successive seasons, helping his team to consecutive playoff berths despite needing reconstructive surgery on his left, then right bicep tendon. On Friday, the Montreal Canadiens announced that the 35 year-old has won the 2013-14 Jacques Beauchamps-Molson Trophy, awarded annually to the member of the Canadiens who played a dominant role during the regular season without earning any particular honours.
“The first [bicep tendon tear], I had a long time to recover from,” recounted Gionta, who missed the second half of the 2011-12 season before returning ten months later, following a short NHL lockout. “Having almost a year to recover helped. I was one hundred percent when I came back.”
When Gionta tore his other bicep tendon, this time in the playoffs against Ottawa in the spring of 2013, the circumstances were not so kind. With just over three months’ time before training camp, the experienced goal-scorer started the season without the benefit of a strong, accurate release to compliment his foot speed and hockey smarts.
“It was tough in the beginning. I started feeling that the strength in my shot was back toward November or December. That’s when I really started getting comfortable,” revealed the right-winger. Tellingly, Gionta only had five goals in the first 41 games of the season, but 12 tallies since. As it stands, his 0.49 points per game in 2013-14 is just around his season averages since joining the Canadiens in the summer of 2009.
With more offensive opportunities afforded to teammates such as Max Pacioretty, Brendan Gallagher and Thomas Vanek, Gionta has seen his shots-per-game rate decrease from an elite 3.63 in 2009-10 to a still-above-average 2.28 this season. Most of the gap can be explained by Gionta’s changing role on his team. The fleet-footed winger has evolved from the Habs’ go-to scorer in 2009-11 to a two-way specialist able to neutralize the Paciorettys and Vaneks on opposing teams at even strength and while short-handed. Allied with frequent linemate and penalty kill partner Tomas Plekanec, Gionta plays more hard minutes and is deployed in the defensive zone more often by his coach than all but a half-dozen wingers in the National Hockey League. All that while scoring as often as most other second-line offensive forwards in the league.
“I never considered our line to be a true shutdown line,” offered Gionta, who, since 2009, has put up more goals for Montreal than anymore not named Pacioretty or Plekanec. “Our goal is to be responsible on both ends of the ice and create what we can against the other team’s top lines.”
“I don’t think my style of play has ever changed,” added the Rochester, NY native, who defends his zone with speed and aggressive puck pursuit rather than sitting back and waiting for the action to come to him. Whether it is scoring or preventing goals, he seems to enjoy being proactive and forcing the issue. “Playing against the opponent’s top lines and on the penalty kill is a difference, but I still approach the game in the same way and don’t plan on changing what I do night-in, night-out.”
“You play your game in a certain way for your teammates. It’s nice that people outside of the team can also see that and recognize that. I’m very fortunate to have played here for five years already. It’s a great city and a great environment, and I cherish that every day,” concluded Gionta, who will be a free agent at the end of the season.
Jack Han is a writer for canadiens.com.