TORONTO — Hockey’s been tough for Brendan Gallagher in these Stanley Cup Playoffs, but he put his baseball skills to work to help keep the Montreal Canadiens alive in their series against the Philadelphia Flyers.
At the 11:30 mark of the second period of Game 5, Gallagher parked himself in front of Carter Hart while his team was on the power play. Nick Suzuki walked out of the corner with the puck, sent an aerial pass across the crease, and Gallagher batted it in for what proved to be an essential goal in this must-win game for the Canadiens.
It was his first goal in eight games, his first in 16 playoff games dating back to 2015, and it came on his playoff-leading 37th shot. Gallagher celebrated it like he might never score another one, peeling off to the corner of the offensive zone and letting out a war cry.
What a narrative-shifting moment it was — not only in this game, but in this series.
Starting with the game, the goal came just under 10 minutes after Montreal’s leading goal scorer in these playoffs, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, was assessed a major penalty and ejected for boarding Travis Sanheim. With the Canadiens down a man for five minutes, the Flyers got two goals from Jakub Voracek in a span of 4:02 of the second period, wrestling away much of the momentum and a 1-0 lead Montreal was clinging to.
Joel Armia, who scored the first goal of the game shorthanded to break a 132-minute Canadiens drought in this series, replied with one that beat Hart from a bad angle. And Gallagher came through at the 11:30 mark of frame to give Montreal a 3-2 lead.
The heart-and-soul player for the Canadiens was at the centre of controversy following consecutive losses that saw him short-shifted and left him beyond frustrated. With his team trailing by two goals in each game, Gallagher was stapled to the bench for long stints in each third period.
“I guess if the coach feels other guys are going to do the job better than you, that’s his job,” Gallagher said after Tuesday’s Game 4 loss. “It doesn’t mean I sit there and accept it, but my job’s to play. So when I’m put on the ice, just try and help out.”
Canadiens interim head coach Kirk Muller was asked prior to Game 5 if he’d lean on Gallagher and give him an adequate shot to redeem himself.
“Gally is one of our best character guys on this team,” Muller said. “He plays hard, he cares. They’re the type of guys you want on your hockey team and in the organization. It was a tough night for him and we got to win hockey games, so I got to make those decisions. But I guarantee he’ll be ready to go tonight and that he’s going to be a good hockey player. I got full confidence of him as a player and that’s what I’m expecting from him because he’s such a character guy.”
After one period, Gallagher had two shots on net and was Montreal’s most-used forward, despite the fact that he spent two minutes in the penalty box for high-sticking. By game’s end, he skated 23 shifts, played 18:02 and with one swing of his stick changed the complexion of this series.
“That’s the Gally we love, and that’s what he can bring to the team,” said Muller afterwards. “He brought the guys into the fight tonight. He’s a competitor, he plays hard and he works for every goal he gets and I thought he had an exceptional game tonight.”
Gallagher wasn’t alone.
Suzuki scored the winning goal at 10:59 of the third period, just 32 seconds after Joel Farabee tied the game for Philadelphia with their third power-play goal of the game. The rookie centreman put in another impressive performance, especially in Kotkaniemi’s absence.
Jonathan Drouin, who was also benched for much of the third period in Game 4, responded with two assists in just under 16-and-a-half minutes of ice-time.
“I thought he had a really good game tonight,” said Muller. “And he did because he played with passion. He was involved, he was on the puck, he had the puck, and those type of players — that’s what they need; they need to be involved and feeling good with it. So if Drou participates the way he did here tonight in the game, much more involved, I think he’s going to get good results. Because of what he did in his commitment tonight he was a good hockey player and he was a big part of that win tonight.”
The rest of Montreal’s leaders were full value. Carey Price was brilliant — particularly in the first period, with a breakaway save on Kevin Hayes in the 14th minute — and came up with 26 saves. Shea Weber, Montreal’s 35-year-old captain, played a game-high 25:34 and finished plus-1. And Phillip Danault and Paul Byron played essential roles in locking this game down, with Danault scoring an empty-net goal to make it 5-3 with 17 seconds remaining.
But the night belonged to Gallagher. The plucky assistant captain of the Canadiens came into the game frustrated — and nursing a lower-body, despite telling reporters, “I’m fine,” following Tuesday’s game. He started Wednesday’s contest with Montreal’s first shot on net before barreling over Ivan Provorov and challenging him to a fight. Gallagher was getting treatment on his leg during television timeouts, and causing a ruckus on the ice coming out of them.
He drew a power play with just over five minutes remaining and the Canadiens clinging to a one-goal lead, and he was unavailable to speak with reporters after the game because he was getting dental work done following a crosscheck he took from Matt Niskanen that left him bleeding from his mouth and missing a tooth.
“He’s got one of the biggest hearts of any guy I’ve ever played with,” said Price, who’s been in the NHL since 2007 and alongside Gallagher with the Canadiens since 2013. “We know what we get from him: we get 100-per-cent compete and he came up with a big one for us tonight.”
Suzuki told Sportsnet that just prior to Wednesday’s game, Muller had challenged Gallagher, Danault and Tomas Tatar to set the tone, and they clearly did with a dominant first shift and a resilient effort that followed.
The Canadiens, who came into this series as the 24th-ranked team, battled through the ebbs and flows of this game and refused to relent when momentum swung the top-seeded Flyers’ way.
“This group is made up of some great character guys, great leaders, and they could’ve came in here tonight and said, ‘We’re the underdogs, we can go home and people will probably say it was pretty successful,’ but they’re not complacent, they’re not happy,” said Muller.
“They want to keep playing, and they proved that. You put a game plan together but if they don’t play without heart and desire and enthusiasm, they don’t get a win, and that shows the group that we have here. They don’t want this to end, they want to keep playing and they love playing for each other and it’s a fun group right now to be a part of.”
Without Gallagher’s contribution to this season-saving win, it’s a group that would likely be on their way out of the bubble and headed back to Montreal. But he took a swing and finally hit, and this series will have a Game 6 come Friday.