Rising to the occasion
MONTREAL – It hasn’t taken Brendan Gallagher long to translate regular season success into postseason proficiency.
In the midst of his second career playoff run in as many NHL seasons, the 21-year-old winger played a pivotal role in helping sweep the Lightning in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, torching Tampa Bay on the scoreboard and frustrating Steven Stamkos & Co. in his new shutdown role.
While the rigors of postseason play might be daunting for some players at the outset of their careers, Gallagher has quickly adapted to the steep learning curve that comes with donning the CH during the NHL’s second season. Making his playoff debut against the Senators during a rough-and-tumble opening-round series in 2012-13 taught him valuable lessons that have translated into a veteran playoff effort so far this spring.
“I think last year what I learned was that the playoffs are such an emotional time and I’m a really emotional player. I have to play with emotion, but you have to learn to keep it in check. You have to understand that you can’t let it get out of control or get too crazy,” offered Gallagher, who put up a career-high 19 goals and 41 points in 2013-14, before racking up three goals and five points in four playoff games against the Lightning, sitting tied for the team lead in both categories this postseason. “That’s really what I took from the playoff series against Ottawa. At times, I let my emotions get the better of me and it affected my play.
“You need to strike a balance between focus and intensity,” continued Gallagher, who boasts five goals and seven points in nine career playoff games with the Canadiens. “It’s been good so far, but I know that as you go deeper and deeper in the playoffs, it’ll be tested that much more."
With a second round date against the rival Bruins on tap, Gallagher should see those emotions spike as early as the conference semifinals. Whether he’s planting himself in the blue paint or throwing his body around in the corners, the 5-foot-9 forward isn’t planning to let that quest for emotional balance come at the expense of the brand of hockey Habs fans have grown accustomed to over the past two years.
“I haven’t changed anything in the way I go out there in the postseason,” mentioned Gallagher, who averaged 15:46 of ice time per game against the Lightning in round one while posting a plus-1 differential and a team-leading 37.5 percent shooting percentage. “Sometimes you’re not going to get the call you’d like – and maybe deserve – from the referees, but you can’t change anything in the way you play the game. I got here playing a certain way and it’s given me some success so far in my NHL career and it’s the only way I know how to play. You’ve got to stick to your strengths and do what you do well.”
That relentless spirit earned Gallagher the opportunity to match up against Tampa Bay’s top snipers alongside playoff veterans Tomas Plekanec and Brandon Prust, a task the former WHL standout tackled with the same enthusiasm that has endeared him to his teammates since his arrival in Montreal two years ago.
“Shutting down those guys is a fun challenge for me. It’s a different responsibility than I’m used to. Pleky understands the game so well and Prusty sacrifices his body every night. We’re out on the ice against the best players in the world, so it’s a chance to compete and really prove your worth. You just go out there and be a productive line for the team,” explained Gallagher, who did his part in preventing Stamkos from lighting the lamp in the final three games of the series against the Lightning, keeping the two-time Richard Trophy winner in check after a two-goal outburst in Game One.
“It’s just about being put in critical situations where Michel [Therrien] gives you that trust and that responsibility,” continued the 2013 Calder Trophy nominee, who twice chased Lightning starter Anders Lindback from the net with critical markers during the series. “When he puts that on you, you don't want to let him down. You want to go out there and do the job. It’s just such a fun time of year to be playing hockey. You want to make it last as long as you can.”
His passion for the postseason might be the worst-kept secret in the Habs dressing room. At a time of year when intimidation tactics are the norm, Gallagher isn’t shy about sporting his trademark smile even in the heat of net-front battles and post-whistle scrums.
“I enjoy how important every single shift is in the playoffs and what it means to your teammates. Every guy seems to be having that much more fun. It’s just awesome to be a part of and it makes for good vibes around the rink,” described Gallagher, who will get his first taste of the longstanding Bruins-Canadiens playoff rivalry in Round 2. “I know what to expect going in to each game. I know what it’s like now, and for me it’s all about the challenge that comes with it. Every game is that much more important – and that much more fun – the more games you play.”