Canadiens’ Galchenyuk still finding stride

Montreal Canadiens center Alex Galchenyuk stretches during the team's practice. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

The ice was barely flooded before Alex Galchenyuk emerged for Montreal’s morning skate Friday.

He was the first one on, displaying those hand skills that have produced electrifying plays throughout his career, flipping pucks up on his stick before the real work got underway.

With an option to pass on every 2-on-1 drill, Galchenyuk was practising his wrist-shot — and he certainly wasn’t aiming to warm up the goaltenders.

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“You’re always trying to go out there and trying to shoot to score,” Galchenyuk said after the skate. “You don’t know when the chances are going to come in the game and you gotta be ready for them, and your mentality should always be trying to score.”

Practice makes perfect, and for Galchenyuk, the psychological effect of seeing the puck hit the back of net—in practice or a game—would probably bring catharsis.

The last time it happened for him in a game, it was an overtime winner to put the Canadiens up 2-0 over the Ottawa Senators in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. For a scorer of his capability, four games without a point can seem like an eternity.

Rarely is Galchenyuk the first on the ice for a practice or morning skate in Brossard. The honour usually belongs to workhorse Tomas Plekanec, or keener P.K. Subban. So it’s probably no coincidence that on the day he finds himself off the power play units he’s also the last of the players expected to play Game 1 against the Tampa Bay Lightning to leave the ice.

This season has seen Galchenyuk make strides on the line of progress, hitting the 20-goal mark for the first time in his career, adding 26 assists for career highs over 80 games.

“I think—at his best—he’s a game-breaker that can do things that very few people can on this team,” said Lars Eller, who’s seen Galchenyuk work magic on several occasions over the last three seasons. “He’s got that ability to sort of break pattern and do something unexpected on his own. At his best, he’s a difference-maker.”

Brendan Gallagher—a fifth-round selection in 2010—came up to the Canadiens at the same time as Galchenyuk. The two have cultivated a brother-type relationship, often ribbing each other in the room and on the ice as fans have witnessed on the Canadiens reality program 24CH. If anyone knows what Galchenyuk is capable of, it’s Gallagher.

“He’s got that natural ability with the puck,” admitted Gallagher. “The ability to see plays is unique in a hockey player and certainly, at the age of 21, he’s got it. It gives people so much hope about what he can be and what he’s done already.”

You expect to see players with the qualities Eller and Gallagher laud to be present on the score sheet, so when they aren’t for a string of games, you have to wonder how they’re taking it.

“Even if you’re not playing your best, you have to go out there and enjoy it,” said Galchenyuk. But as he worked through the morning skate Friday; as he sat down to peel his equipment off; the smile he usually wears was noticeably absent.

Canadiens coach Michel Therrien knows the recipe that’ll likely bring a smile back to Galchenyuk’s face.

“He’s gotta make sure he’s taking the right decisions, making good reads when he has the puck and making good reads when he doesn’t have the puck so that he’ll be in a good position,” said Therrien. “When he’s on top of his game, he’s in a good position to retrieve pucks. But that’s a process with young players and we can’t forget that he just turned 21. He’s still gotta work on the process.”

The Canadiens drafted Galchenyuk third overall in 2012 after he collected 75 goals in 108 games with the Ontario Hockey League’s Sarnia Sting.

He was instantly promoted to the NHL in the lockout-abridged 2012-13 season, and he responded well to the challenge with 27 points in his first 48 games, followed by three points in five playoff games.

In 2013-14, Galchenyuk took a step back with just 31 points in 67 games, and he was rounding into form with a three-game point streak before suffering a knee injury in the Canadiens’ final road-game of the season in Chicago.

Galchenyuk returned for Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final against the New York Rangers and recorded two goals and an assist in five games.

Friday morning, playing the game that he loves most, it looked like work for Galchenyuk. He scored a couple of goals on those 2-on-1 drills. Perhaps, on Friday night, he’ll offer some evidence that he’s moving quickly through the process.

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