He puts his head down, takes three quick strides, brings the puck from his backhand to his forehand and tries to stuff it into the net with every ounce of force his 185-pound frame can muster.
By the time Ryan Getzlaf catches up to Gallagher, it’s too late. A quality chance has been recorded.
But instead of a goal, Gallagher receives a choke-slam to the ice from Getzlaf that leaves him flat on his back. Then he bounces back up, heads to the bench, and readies himself for the next battle, because that’s who he is. It’s who he’s always been.
It’s the 26-year-old’s seventh NHL season, and every minute of his career blends together. Whether it’s driving the net, forechecking, backchecking, passing, shooting, blocking or hitting; whether it’s pre-season, regular season, or post-season, the effort is always the same. And rare is a shift that has Gallagher returning to the bench with air in his lungs, which is something that is not only plain to see for all the spectators, it’s also abundantly clear to his teammates.
“That’s Gally,” says Montreal’s youngest player, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who scored for a third-straight game in his team’s 4-1 win over the Anaheim Ducks. “Practice, games — you learn a lot from him just watching him do what he does. He never gives up.”
It’s why Gallagher’s importance to the Canadiens’ success (now at 30-18-6 and in third place in the Atlantic Division) cannot be understated. In a lot of ways, he is the symbol of their style — a speedy, undersized, relentless, in-your-face player who out-wills you at every turn.
“He inspires a lot of guys on our team just by his work ethic and his commitment to competing hard every game, and I think every team needs a player like that,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “He does a great job of it… From the start right to the end, he was a really good player. Those kinds of players, the teams that have them really appreciate having them because they give you a spark every once in a while. Your team goes a little flat and then this guy comes in and gives you the kind of shift that you’re looking for from a player. It’s about work ethic, and it inspires and wakes people up. Those are important players on our team, and that’s why he’s wearing a letter.”
Another reason? Gallagher scores key goals at key moments, like he did in the eighth minute of a first period the Canadiens were dominating, and again to make it 3-0 prior to intermission.
That was crucial. This game had trap written all over it for the Canadiens. Squaring off against an angry Ducks team begging to be underestimated. One that had come off 9-3 and 6-1 shellackings care of the Winnipeg Jets and Toronto Maple Leafs, respectively, to compound a run that saw them win just two of their last 18 games. A good start for Montreal would help them avoid falling into it.
And in the third period, after a lackadaisical second that saw the Canadiens sit on their heels and divert from the game plan, a spark was needed.
“We all understood the situation we were in,” said Gallagher. “You get off to a 3-0 lead, it would’ve been nice to keep your foot on the gas but we didn’t do that. It was nice to come in (the dressing room) and hit a quick reset, just have that chance to refocus. We knew what we had to do and we just went out there, and I thought we did a pretty good job in the third.”
The 5:03 Gallagher played in the frame were a big part of that — from his net-driving shift to the assist he notched on Phillip Danault’s goal to put the game out of reach.
“The fans really wanted me to get a hat trick,” Gallagher said.
It would’ve been the first one of his NHL career, which is somewhat astounding when you consider the former fifth-round pick in the 2012 draft has scored 139 times in 460 games.
“It doesn’t matter much to me,” Gallagher said.
That he leads the Canadiens in goals with 21 and is on pace to at least match his career-high of 31 (set last season) is also of little consequence to him.
“I tell you guys the same thing every year,” he said. “I don’t really set goals like that for myself (because) it kind of takes away from the enjoyment of playing the game. You play the game for one reason — that’s to win hockey games.”