Canadiens’ Galchenyuk ‘hungry and focused’ in new role

Carey Price stopped 36 of 37 shots faced and Max Pacioretty scored twice for the Canadiens to get a 3-1 season-opening win over the Maple Leafs.

TORONTO — The most important thing was not that Alex Galchenyuk scored the game-winning goal, although it certainly came in handy for the Montreal Canadiens in a nervy opener.

It wasn’t even that he anchored a sturdy shift in the late stages of a close game.

What really stood out as the Canadiens embarked on a season with big expectations is how comfortable everyone seemed with the idea of Galchenyuk as a centre — a shift that could have seismic implications for the organization long-term, but might result in some unwanted tremors beforehand.

Fortunately, there weren’t really any of those on a night where coach Michel Therrien chose his assignments carefully against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Galchenyuk didn’t take a defensive zone faceoff in the opening two periods, and was essentially deployed as the team’s No. 3 centre behind Tomas Plekanec and David Desharnais.

However, that didn’t stop him from beating Jonathan Bernier with a lethal shot at 12:02 of the third period, or seeing his line with Alex Semin and Lars Eller control more than 60 per cent of shot attempts at even strength.

Therrien will find plenty he likes from that trio upon reviewing tape of the 3-1 win. It might even be enough to make the coach think about giving Galchenyuk a bit more rope during Saturday’s game in Boston.

No matter what happens as the days becomes weeks, he vows that this is no experiment. Unlike last year, Galchenyuk will stay in the middle even when he struggles.

“He’s going to go through tough times and it’s normal,” said Therrien. “I’m expecting that. But the plan for him — we want him to be a centreman and we’re ready to be patient with him. He showed us a lot of good stuff in training camp; I was impressed about the way he played, the way he sees the ice, his positioning without the puck.”

When we last saw Galchenyuk in a meaningful game he was a frustrated player. As one of several Habs who struggled to create offence during a second-round playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the spring was a difficult time.

Today, there is a completely different air about him.

“You’ve got to be hungry, which I truly am,” said Galchenyuk. “Hungry and focused.”

A huge turning point came during the NHL draft weekend in June, when he received a call from a 514 area code he didn’t recognize and it ended up being Therrien. The two met for lunch near Galchenyuk’s summer home in Miami and went over the plan for this season.

It was a conversation that set the stage for the entire summer.

“It was just nice to see him just talking to me and believing in me,” said Galchenyuk. “He [asked] if I would feel comfortable going to centre and well I said: ‘Yeah, of course.’ It’s just an overall good lunch.

“It’s nice to finally meet outside, you know — it’s so different atmosphere in the restaurant than the locker-room.”

A wry smile came across his face as he relayed the story.

“The steak was pretty good, too.”

It’s easy to forget that Galchenyuk is still only 21 years old. Selected third in the 2012 draft despite sitting out most of that season with a knee injury, he’s experienced the growing pains virtually every teenager goes through while transitioning to the NHL.

However, there’s a reason he was selected so high and cracked Montreal’s roster immediately.

There’s plenty of talent to go with his six-foot-one frame and some believe it’s only a matter of time before we see it shine through in a big way.

“I’m excited about him,” said teammate P.K. Subban. “I don’t want to put any pressure on Alex, but my expectations of him are really high because I know how good he is right now and I know how good he can be. He’s going to be a big part of our team moving forward.

“I’m just excited to watch him play, and really excited just to play with him.”

Make no mistake: The push for a Stanley Cup is on in the Canadiens dressing room. They have a pillar on the blue line in Subban and the best goaltender in the world in Carey Price. New captain Max Pacioretty, who scored twice against the Leafs, is a dangerous scoring threat on the wing.

The only key ingredient missing is a big presence in the middle.

As solid a two-way player as Plekanec has been throughout his career — and remains today — he doesn’t quite fit the mould. His future is also murky with unrestricted free agency looming this summer.

Ideally Galchenyuk will eventually fill that role, which is why it’s so vital the Habs take the long view if he struggles during his first extended tour around the NHL as a centreman.

“Everyone expects ups and downs,” said Galchenyuk. “But for me as a young player I think the most important thing is to be confident, stay consistent and focus on the little things that will lead to the big things.”

His season got off to a great start on Wednesday night. But the real victory here will come with sticking to the process.

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