Canadiens’ Byron, Gallagher embracing opportunity to compete for Stanley Cup

Kyle Bukauskas checks in with Colby Armstrong and Eric Engels to preview what a Canadiens/Penguins playoff series would look like and whether a healthy Penguins team would be too much for Montreal to overcome.

MONTREAL — Brendan Gallagher referred to it as a second life and Paul Byron called it a new one. Any way you slice it, their Montreal Canadiens are on the receiving end of an opportunity they didn’t earn, but one that will be gifted to them if and when the NHL returns to resume the 2019-20 season.

Neither player is taking that for granted.

They are the associate captains and NHLPA representatives of a team that was 31-31-9—10 points out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and trending towards better odds in the draft lottery with 11 games remaining—when the season was paused in the second week of March due to the novel coronavirus.

They’re two players who desperately want to win, and two players who understand how a pick in the top 10 of this year’s draft can accelerate that process.

But they’re also two players who have sat out of the playoffs for two consecutive seasons and three of the last four.

To say Byron and Gallagher are more compelled by the opportunity to play immediately for the Cup over packing it in and hoping for a higher draft choice — even as the 24th-placed team in a 24-team tournament the NHL and NHLPA have agreed upon as a format for a potential return to play in late July or early August — would be understating it.

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Granted, we’re talking about Byron — a 31-year-old who has played close to 450 games in the NHL despite being a former sixth-round pick. And then there’s Gallagher, who was chosen 147th overall by the Canadiens in 2010.

The 28-year-old graduated to the NHL in the lockout abridged 2012-13 season and has since registered 173 goals and 334 points in 547 games. He’s a bona fide top-liner, a four-time 20-goal scorer (he also had two 19-goal campaigns) and a two-time 30-goal scorer.

Gallagher qualified the choice between a high pick and a chance to play for the Cup as an easy one on his joint conference call with Byron Thursday.

“A high draft pick doesn’t necessarily guarantee you a good player,” Gallagher said. “An opportunity to be in the playoffs gives you a chance of winning a Stanley Cup. So, for me it’s pretty easy; give me an opportunity to win now, you’re not going to pass that up.

“Obviously you’re going to have these prospects, you’re going to have these players who are going to come in and help you [win down the line], but it doesn’t mean picking later in the draft that you don’t have that opportunity.”

Surely he’s aware of the odds in that equation.

But he’s certainly not concerned with them.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

And regarding Montreal’s infinitesimal chances of winning a three-to-five game play-in series against a Pittsburgh Penguins team that’s superior in nearly every category—one that was 15 points ahead with two games in hand on the Canadiens when the season was paused—Gallagher doesn’t seem to perturbed by that, either.

He even had a bit of a chuckle about reports the Penguins aren’t particularly thrilled about having to face teammate Carey Price in a short series.

“I guess if they’re unhappy, I guess it’s good for us,” Gallagher said. “We obviously know what kind of challenge that would be. Arguably two of the best players in the world (Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin) and you go up against them in a series… that’s not something I’ve ever had to do, so it would be a challenge.

“But like any athlete, you look forward to testing yourselves and look forward to how you hold up in those situations. So it would be a test for our group for sure, especially with a lot of guys that haven’t been given that playoff experience. And we feel we stack up. To say we’d go in there without confidence or without belief wouldn’t be true. If there’s one thing I know about our group, it’s if we are given that opportunity, it’s something that we’d welcome.”

The chance to start at zero is compelling, too. Because that’s essentially what all 24 teams are doing.

Before the season was paused, the Philadelphia Flyers had just had a nine-game winning streak snapped by the Boston Bruins, the Toronto Maple Leafs had erased a three-game winning streak at the end of February by going 0-for California at the beginning of March, the Penguins had closed out February on a six-game losing streak and gone win-loss in their five games in March, and the Canadiens were waiting to be put out of their misery after losing 22 of their 71 games by a single goal.

Players from all 31 teams were dealing with injuries, bumps, bruises and fatigue. Coaches were dealing with the stress and exhaustion that comes with the day-to-day grind of game preparation and management, and managers were coming off the frantic bustle of trade-deadline planning and looking ahead to playoffs or the off-season.

Richard Deitsch and Donnovan Bennett host a podcast about how COVID-19 is impacting sports around the world. They talk to experts, athletes and personalities, offering a window into the lives of people we normally root for in entirely different ways.

But the idea that we’re just picking up where we left off, after a four-to-five month break in the action, is convoluted at best. Even with the rosters relatively unchanged.

“It’s no secret we had some injuries on our team. Guys were banged up,” said Byron. “I was just coming back from [a three-month] injury, Jo [Drouin] was trying to come back from a wrist injury, guys were playing big minutes for our team that probably wouldn’t normally play big minutes because we had injuries. And we have an infusion of youth coming through the system right now and some of those guys were getting [an] opportunity at the end of the year and really making strides in their game.

“So, if you look at our team in July, August, it’s certainly a lot different than it did look in March. And that’s the same for every single team. I think every team is going to get the advantage of that. I know Pittsburgh had guys who were injured and are coming back and I think that’s what makes this format potentially exciting for teams. There’s teams [that were] maybe limping into the playoffs and now everyone kind of gets a reset, everyone gets to go in the playoffs now 100 per cent healthy minus a few injuries that were long-term…”

Byron added the Canadiens didn’t demand this opportunity or even request it. He was as surprised as anyone that it became a proposal for him and his teammates to vote on.

But both he and Gallagher said they were absolutely in favour of it.

“If you know players, if you know athletes, you know we’re all competitive guys,” Byron said. “I don’t like losing at a sport to a family member. When the puck is on the ice, I have one focus—I want to win. I know everyone on our team wants to win, too. …We know how the leaders of our team feel, too. [General manager] Marc [Bergevin] and [coach] Claude [Julien] feel that if we have a chance to beat Pittsburgh, we’re playing to win and that’s that. That’s the bottom line. We play to win. That’s sports.”

And to those who’d suggest the integrity of the Stanley Cup tournament would be compromised by allowing teams that didn’t qualify on their own merit to compete and possibly win, Gallagher had a message.

“For a team to go through five series potentially and win a Stanley Cup? I don’t think there’s anyone who can say they didn’t deserve it,” he said. “Is (the format) perfect? No. But is it the best option? I obviously voted yes, and I think a lot of players around the league agree.”

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