Canadiens’ balanced scoring one of many surprises defining their season

Brendan Gallagher scored three times as the Montreal Canadiens easily beat the Philadelphia Flyers 5-1.

MONTREAL— It was one burning question which was rightfully asked by anyone and everyone who was tasked with predicting where the Montreal Canadiens might land in the standings this season: Where are the goals going to come from?

In the wake of trading their perennial 30-goal-scoring captain, Max Pacioretty, to the Vegas Golden Knights just a couple of months after moving natural sniper Alex Galchenyuk to the Arizona Coyotes, you couldn’t blame anyone for wondering.

Sure, it was a given that Brendan Gallagher, who hit a career-high of 31 last season, was going to get his. Paul Byron, if healthy, was likely to hit the 20-goal mark for the third straight season. But that on its own wasn’t going to cut it for a team with playoff aspirations.

Jonathan Drouin, who scored just 13 goals in his first year with the Canadiens? Max Domi, who came over in the Galchenyuk deal after a second consecutive season of scoring only nine goals? Tomas Tatar, who had consistently lit the lamp in his years with the Detroit Red Wings but was completely muted following his trade to Vegas at last year’s deadline? Let’s just say there weren’t too many people betting on these players to get the job done.

Well, 61 games later, that’s just one of a number of assumptions made about these Canadiens that have already been proven wrong.

On Thursday, in a 5-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers, Domi registered his career-high 53rd point on Tatar’s 20th goal of the season. He didn’t score a goal, but he’s already eclipsed his career high of 18 goals and has 20 of them to his name.

Drouin was also held without one, but he’s got 17 and is on pace to cruise by his career high of 21 (set with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2017).

Gallagher scored three of Montreal’s first four goals of the game to register the first hat trick of his NHL career bringing his total on the season to 26. Phil Danault, who has 11 goals and is just two away from his career high, hit a new high in points with his 41st of the season. And 18-year-old rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi scored his 11th goal 3:11 into the game, making him one of eight players on the team on pace to score at least 15 goals this season.

We didn’t see that coming, but Gallagher did.

“If you look at our lines, there’s a lot of talented players who know how to put the puck in the net,” he said. “I think what we’ve been able to do this year is use our depth to come at teams, so nobody’s really overused or over-exhausted during the game. When you’re fresh, it goes a long way. We’ve got a lot of depth. We don’t, maybe, have the high-end talent that we rely on every single night, but I think we have a lot of talent in this locker room that can show up and put the puck in the net.”

It’s been proven time and time again, and Thursday’s game was no exception. The Canadiens had five goals in the first 27 minutes of action. It was their 15th time scoring at least as many in a game this season, which is four times more than they did all of last season. And they’ve somehow managed to do it with the worst power play in the NHL, which wasn’t put to the test at any point of Thursday’s game.

How?

“I think it’s just the fact that we’re playing fast,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “There’s nothing harder to defend than when you’re facing some speed coming at you. Our transition game has been pretty good. Guys coming back hard gives you the opportunity to turn up the ice and go back with some speed instead of maybe being lazy, being up high [and] you’re receiving a pass, you’re standing still, you’ve got no support. So that’s been very helpful for our team this year.”

It’s also been almost entirely unexpected and it’s allowed the Canadiens to maintain their spot in a playoff position for all but a handful of days since the season began. It’s also helped them average 2.98 goals per game and helped them suffocate teams at even strength—registering the seventh-most goals and fourth-best shot-attempt differential in the league at 5-on-5.

Even Tatar wasn’t sure the Canadiens would be able to do that this year, but he saw the potential shortly after arriving with the team in September.

“To be honest I didn’t really know what it was going to be like to begin the season,” said the 28-year-old Slovak. “We started camp really good, then it seemed like everybody was working along and everybody was working hard. We got some results right in our camp and I thought our team looked promising. We have four lines rolling and everyone’s working hard for this team.”

It’s one of the main reasons they’re keeping pace with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the race for one of the top three spots in the Atlantic Division. No one really saw that coming, either.

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