MONTREAL — Brendan Gallagher charged over the offensive blue line in possession of the puck, flipped it by Zach Werenski, beat him to the corner and was met by hulking, six-foot-four, 209-pound defenceman Seth Jones.
The Columbus Blue Jackets blueliner denied the diminutive Montreal Canadiens forward a lane to the inside of the ice, bodied him off the puck and sent the play rushing toward the other end of the rink.
We’re talking about Gallagher, who makes his living between the dots — not only on the inside of the action, but right in front of the opposing net. In this game, he made it there a few times — including on a last-second chance that saw him pegged in the leg by a Phillip Danault one-timer while the Canadiens scrambled to tie things up at 4-4 — but he was largely shut out of the area throughout the afternoon.
Canadiens coach Claude Julien knew this game was going to be a challenge for Gallagher, Danault and leading scorer Tomas Tatar, who still managed to put up a goal and an assist. The Blue Jackets may not be the biggest or heaviest team in the league, but they have a tendency to play like it. It’s the reason why in defiance of Canadiens fans calling for Ryan Poehling to follow Jesperi Kotkaniemi down to the American Hockey League after Saturday’s game, the six-foot-two rookie remained with the big club and dressed Sunday in favour of generously listed five-foot-10 forward Jordan Weal.
It’s also a big part of the reason Joel Armia — who stands six-foot-four, 213 pounds — played 21 shifts and 19:29 in the game. Ditto for six-foot-three, 222-pounder Ilya Kovalchuk, who was the most-used forward for either team (20:53) — even if this was the second half of a back-to-back, and even if he’s 36 years old.
“It’s huge,” said Canadiens defenceman Ben Chiarot. “You need to have size in this league. Guys like (Armia) — you see how effective he is, especially down low. Kovalchuk is the same thing. We’ve got good skating guys. You (add) big guys that can skate like that (up front) and it makes it even better and harder for other teams to play against.”
It was Armia and Kovalchuk, using their size, who proved to be a big part of the reason the Canadiens had a chance of winning this game and overcoming the Blue Jackets’ suffocating style — not to mention the various mistakes they made.
And it is Kovalchuk’s size, in combination with his skill, which provides the most relevant case for the Canadiens to keep him in Montreal instead of trading him away at the Feb. 24 deadline. It can help balance what this team has pencilled into its top two lines for the foreseeable future, and as the games take on greater importance — as the team has to play against more opponents like the Blue Jackets, who own the NHL’s best record since Dec. 9 — what Kovalchuk brings to the table becomes that much more important.
The thing is, The Canadiens are eight points out of a playoff spot despite having played two more games than both the teams currently locking down the positions they’re trying to get into, and Kovalchuk’s trade stock is rising with every passing game. An assist on Sunday, which brought his point total to 10 in 12 games since signing a two-way, $700,000 contract with Montreal, only helped that cause.
Kovalchuk is aware of this reality, but he also knows he’s boosting his value to this team’s future — and it’s a future he believes is promising enough for him to fulfill his ultimate goal of winning a Stanley Cup before closing up his NHL career.
“It’s all in the hands of the GM and the organization here, but like I said from the first second I came here, I love everything about this team,” Kovalchuk started. “The way everyone has welcomed me to the fans, who are unbelievable. I know the next two weeks will decide everything, and whatever the decision will be I will take it as a man, but this team is special. This group of guys is special.
“They all care, they want to win, they want to be better. And all the young guys like (Nick) Suzuki … and (Kotkaniemi) and (Cale) Fleury — they sent them down, but they’re all ready to play. This team has a bright future, and if I can be part of it, that would be really good.”
We wouldn’t expect him to say otherwise while he’s still dressing in Canadiens colours on a daily basis, but when Kovalchuk began talking about how excited he is for his four children to visit Montreal for the first time since he signed back on Jan. 3, his eyes lit up.
“They’re coming on Wednesday,” he said. “I can’t wait. It’s nice because obviously it’s a special atmosphere here and they’re going to see it.”
Kovalchuk added he can’t wait for them to be at the team’s skills competition next Sunday, for them to be down in Montreal’s locker room and for them to have a chance to meet the teammates who have welcomed him so openly.
They are teammates who have seen what he can do — things Kovalchuk did for most of his career, but seemed incapable of still doing in the lead-up to his contract termination in Los Angeles earlier this season — and they want to keep seeing him do them in their uniform.
“He’s a really good player,” said Gallagher. “He gives us depth throughout our lineup. I think you can see right now we’re rolling four lines pretty good, and when you can add a player like that …
“He’s (also) an awesome teammate. Getting to play with him, it didn’t take long to figure that out. He competes hard, he wants to be here, he’s really taking advantage of his opportunity and he wants to see his teammates do well. He’s fit in really nicely with our team.”