Montreal Canadiens forward Alex Galchenyuk told Sportsnet’s Cassie Campbell, between the second and third periods of his team’s 4-2 loss to the Winnipeg Jets Saturday, that he hadn’t spent any time this season thinking about getting an opportunity to centre Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher — the team’s highest-scoring wingers.
They spent just seven shifts together on Saturday night; seven shifts that only reinforced how curious it was that Canadiens coach Michel Therrien had waited until Game 66 of his team’s season to reunite these three players.
The trio had Montreal’s only two scoring chances in the first period, they allowed one against, and were starting to gel again when Gallagher went down awkwardly in the offensive zone and left the game with a lower-body injury.
A year prior, Pacioretty, Galchenyuk and Gallagher played together for 12 games between Dec. 9 and Jan. 10. They combined for 29 points over that stretch and led the Canadiens to a 9-1-2 record in the standings.
At no point this season – even when the Canadiens couldn’t buy a win in December, when they were lifeless in January and when they were averaging less than two goals a game for a 25-game stretch – did Therrien promote Galchenyuk to the No. 1 centre position for an extended period of time.
The coach and general manager Marc Bergevin had committed to developing Galchenyuk at centre this season. They met with him over the summer, and assured him he’d be given the mission and that they’d allow him time to find his best self at the position.
This was three seasons in the making.
“I don’t want him coming to camp with the mentality that ‘If things don’t work at centre, I’ll be okay at wing.’ I want him to focus,” said Therrien at the Canadiens annual golf tournament in September. “And that’s the reason I sat down with him early in the summer, so his mindset was that he was going to work out during the summer and see himself as a centreman.”
The experiment lasted 44 games and two periods. It consisted of Galchenyuk centring Lars Eller, who’s admittedly uncomfortable at left wing, and a rotation of Alexander Semin (whose contract was terminated in December), rookies Sven Andrighetto and Daniel Carr and graduated bottom-six forwards Torrey Mitchell, Brian Flynn, Dale Weise and Paul Byron on his right wing.
Under those circumstances, Galchenyuk managed to rank 17th in the NHL in points per 60 minutes of play. He did that despite playing over 17 minutes of ice time in just four of his games at centre.
But right back to the wing Galchenyuk went.
“There’s times he’s very good at centre, some other times he struggles,” Bergevin told Sportsnet on Feb. 29. “To me, it’s a tool in his bag that he can play both positions.”
Galchenyuk had picked up five goals on the wing in five games leading up to Saturday’s loss to Winnipeg. His confidence was in the right place for the transition back to centre, and he showed it — even without Gallagher for most of the game.
A minute and 13 seconds after Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban turned a puck over to Jets centre Mark Scheifele for the game’s opening goal, there was Galchenyuk finishing off a perfect three-way passing play that started with defenceman Mark Barberio pushing the puck down low to Pacioretty, who knifed a backhand pass between his legs to Galchenyuk.
Down 2-1 in the third period after Winnipeg’s Andrew Copp tipped a puck from the high slot past Canadiens goaltender Mike Condon, Galchenyuk answered with his second goal of the game. With it, he notched a new career high: 21 goals in a season, achieved in 14 games less than it took him to score 20 last season.
With Andrighetto on their line, Pacioretty and Galchenyuk kept the Canadiens in the game. They saw heavy ice time down the stretch and Galchenyuk led all Montreal forwards with 20:01 by the game’s end.
It wasn’t all gravy.
Galchenyuk only won 33 per cent of his faceoffs (he came into the game having won 51.1 per cent of them, and he hadn’t played centre in 22 games), and he was on for the empty-net goal Scheifele scored to record his first-ever NHL hat trick.
But Galchenyuk gave the Canadiens a dose of reality with his play Saturday night.
The Canadiens drafted him third overall in 2012 as a centreman. They drafted him to fill an organizational need they’ve had since Vincent Damphousse left the team in 1999. And if they ever want him to be the centre they hoped he’d be, committing to him in the No. 1 slot from here to the end of the season will only accelerate the process.
“I’m more looking at our games as a chance to see how our young players react,” said Therrien in French after Saturday’s game. “A guy like Galchenyuk, he really responded well to the call.”
Now it’s time to see if Galchenyuk can sustain his level of play as the team’s top centre.