Front and center
MONTREAL – The road to postseason success isn’t paved with any one special ingredient, but playoff veteran Brian Gionta insists there’s no secret to what makes championship teams tick.
In the midst of his 11th career appearance in the NHL’s second season – and his fourth as a member of the Canadiens – the 2003 Stanley Cup champ has experienced the memorable highs and inevitable lows that come with trying to reach hockey’s proverbial “promised land” and he’s learned as much from the ups as he has from the downs.
“It’s all about sticking together. You need a team that does that no matter what’s going on, especially when you’re facing adversity in the playoffs, which will inevitably happen to every team,” offered the Canadiens captain, who boasts 32 goals and 65 points in 103 career postseason tilts with New Jersey and Montreal.
“You win four games in a row and maybe things seem easy and you don’t have much adversity, but then you lose a big game. It’s about how you either respond to that or lose momentum,” added the 12-year NHL veteran, who has one goal and four points in eight playoff games in 2014 playing on a line with Rene Bourque and Lars Eller. “It comes down to how tight the group is and whether or not everybody is pulling in the same direction. Adversity is tough to deal with. You need a solid group.”
The Rochester, NY native is adamant the way in which the Habs battled all season long to maintain their standing in a competitive Atlantic division before giving both the Lightning and Bruins fits in the playoffs is a clear indication that the 2013-14 edition of the Canadiens has been on the same page since game one last fall.
“I sense that closeness here. We’ve faced our fair share of adversity throughout the regular season with injuries and some tough stretches. There are teams that kind of breeze through the year, make it to playoffs and then finally face some adversity and they struggle with it.
Facing that adversity during the season brought us together,” confided the 35-year-old father of three, who registered one goal and nine points in 24 games in the Devils’ 2002-03 Stanley Cup run that culminated in New Jersey’s third title in franchise history.
In Gionta’s eyes, strengthening that feeling of togetherness inside the Canadiens dressing room is all about sharing the leadership load, a concept the 2006 Olympian believes is essential to building team unity over the course of an 82-game season.
“It’s not one voice. It’s not two or three voices. It’s about everybody having their say and feeling like they’re part of the group. That’s what I try to make sure happens, that everybody is in here together, everybody has the same amount of say and feels like they’re a part of everything,” divulged Gionta, who captained Boston College to an NCAA crown during his senior season in 2000-01, pacing the Eagles with 33 goals and 54 points in 43 games.
“It’s about having everybody buy into the role they’re playing and making sure they know they’re a big part of the process,” continued the seven-time 20 goal scorer, who still holds the Devils’ single-season record with 48 goals in 2005-06. “Everybody needs to be a part of it. Everybody has a role. If they’re performing in their role, we’re going to be successful.”
That’s certainly been the case for Michel Therrien’s troops this postseason, with 13 of 20 skaters lighting the lamp behind opposing netminders and 18 players factoring in on the scoresheet at one time or another. The Habs’ ability to generate offense throughout the lineup isn’t lost on Gionta, who earned his Stanley Cup ring as part of a group that also spread point production around en route to claiming hockey’s top prize.
“I thought our depth in Round 1 was a huge key to our success. Having that depth and seeing everybody pitch in the way they did played a huge part in helping us come out on top,” explained Gionta, who proudly watched the Canadiens’ young guns and less-seasoned playoff performers demonstrate their exceptional poise in pressure situations against the Lightning.
“This time of year, it’s what you need. It’s all about matchups in the playoffs. Your top line is going to draw a tough matchup and it’s going to be a big, long and tough series for those guys who are getting keyed on,” added the shifty winger, whose name is etched on the Cup alongside Hockey Hall of Famers and former Devils Scott Niedermayer, Scott Stevens and Joe Nieuwendyk, all of whom he credits with teaching him the art of leadership early on in his NHL career. “It’s up to the rest of the guys to win their matchups, whether it’s the second line, third line or fourth. If you win those battles against the other team, you have a good chance of winning that series. It’s tough to stop a team that has that kind of depth.”
The same can be said about squads boasting players with a sure-fire passion for playoff hockey like Gionta, who already has the start of springtime’s most grueling test on his mind in early October.
“The playoffs are what you live for. It’s where you want to be year in and year out. The regular season is just about trying to prepare yourself for the postseason. Winning a Stanley Cup is what you dream of. Once you get to the playoffs, everybody starts fresh and you have that new chance to win,” confided Gionta. “I love the intensity and the pressure that comes with it. I love the atmosphere, too, no matter where you are. I enjoy just how important every play is. There’s no better time of year.”
Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.
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