TORONTO — This is foreign territory for Brendan Gallagher.
The heart and soul of these Montreal Canadiens, their leading goal scorer over their last three seasons, hasn’t found the back of the net in nine games, including all seven he’s played in these Stanley Cup Playoffs. And after a game in which he led his team with three shots on net and eight attempts, a game they lost by a score of 1-0 to give the Philadelphia Flyers a 2-1 series lead, you could understand how he felt about it.
“I’m frustrated for sure,” the 28-year-old said. “But no sense in feeling sorry for yourself. You’ve got to find a way to battle through that. I’ve always believed you’ve got to try and fight the urge to be frustrated … it’s a wasted emotion. Obviously I’m an emotional player. You’ve got to control that side of it. It’s not so much the process right now, it’s more the results.”
They weren’t there for this Montreal group.
It wasn’t just Gallagher who had a hard time breaking through the wall the Flyers put up in Sunday’s Game 3. The Canadiens had 23 shots blocked, and they were limited to just four chances from that home plate area between the dots of the offensive zone.
Outside of that, Jesperi Kotkaniemi struck iron twice, Brett Kulak and Nick Suzuki also rang shots off the bars, and those were four of 14 missed attempts the Canadiens registered in the game.
When they got themselves in the clear, there was Carter Hart.
The Flyers goaltender, who was pulled from Game 2 after allowing four goals on 26 shots, took the spotlight away from birthday boy Carey Price. Hart was brilliant, particularly in the second period, with a stop on Shea Weber and a point-blank save on Jonathan Drouin. With just over seven minutes to play in the third, he turned aside a great chance for Artturi Lehkonen. And he held firm on another one from Kotkaniemi in the dying seconds.
But it was two stops he made on Gallagher that stood out, both of them premium scoring chances that left the plucky winger looking skyward and muttering to himself.
“It is frustrating because the guys in there worked their bag off and you’d like to be able to contribute and help them out,” he said. “A game like today where it’s as tight as it is, I’m put in positions to produce and that’s my role on this team. You can say all the right things, you can be in all the right places, but if you don’t get results then you’ve just got to find a way to work through it. And that’s where I’m at right now.
“I’d be lying if I [said it] wasn’t frustrating, but the next game you do the same things you’ve done your whole life and find a way to just kind of power through it.”
Gallagher has to.
And the Canadiens?
They may not have been bad in this one, but they certainly weren’t good enough.
Nor were they as good as their counterparts.
The Flyers clamped down in a way they hadn’t in their humiliating 5-0 loss on Friday.
Robert Hagg replaced Shayne Gostisbehere and registered an assist on Jakub Voracek’s goal, which came in the sixth minute of the action. He also played a much more direct game than Gostisbehere, one that allowed the Flyers to get out of their zone easier, and he offered a more physical game that helped keep Hart’s crease clear.
Michael Raffl, who hadn’t played since suffering a lower-body injury against the Boston Bruins on Aug. 2, returned in Joel Farabee’s spot and helped the Flyers lock the game up.
It was clear Philadelphia coach Alain Vigneault got what he wanted — both out of his lineup changes and out of his team.
“I’ve always believed that there is one way to play the game and that’s the right way,” Vigneault said earlier on Sunday. “When the other team’s got the gap and positioning on you, you got to get pucks behind them. When you have room to make a play, use that room to make a play. When it’s time to check, you check. Good sticks, good body position. When it’s time to use your speed and skill because you have room, use your speed and your skill.”
The Flyers did all of that successfully in this one.
Galvanized by the appearance of Oskar Lindblom at their morning skate — the Swedish forward participated in practice Sunday for the first time since he was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma in January — they brought the emotion up a notch. They knotted the neutral zone, applied a fair degree of pressure on Montreal’s defence, and they made good on their best chance of the game.
The Flyers hadn’t lost back-to-back games at any point over their final 26 games of the regular season and avoided doing so after losing their first game since arriving in Toronto. And at least part of the reason for that was that the Canadiens didn’t quite do what they do best.
“We didn’t get the same flow through the middle as say the last game,” said interim head coach Kirk Muller. “We got more on the boards and that. There’s some corrections that we can make. We didn’t utilize our speed as much as last game. So, we’ll get ready for that and get prepared for the next game.”
We’re not sure what Gallagher can do differently to change his luck.
He leads the Stanley Cup Playoffs with 31 shots on goal, and he’s also at the top of the list in high-danger shot attempts at five-on-five (16). We’re talking about a guy who’s scored on 10 per cent of the shots he’s taken in this league; it’s unfathomable he’s stuck on zero right now.
At a certain point, the dam has to break. At least that’s how Muller sees it.
“Gally’s a competitor, and these have been tight games and everything,” he said. “He’s pushing, doing a lot of the right things. He’s getting shots on net, he’s in the right area that he scores goals — right in front of the net. So, he just has to stay with it. This is playoff hockey and he’s the type of player who will excel in these types of games.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in him and I think if he just keeps doing that stuff, it’s just a matter of getting the opportunities and capitalizing on them when he gets them.”
It’s what Gallagher has done throughout his entire career.
We’re talking about a player who had three 40-goal seasons in the Western Hockey League, a player who had 10 goals in the only 36 games he ever played in the American Hockey League, a player who’s topped the 20-goal mark in five of his eight NHL seasons. Gallagher scored over 30 in each of the two seasons leading into this one, and he had 22 over 59 games from October to March.
Now it’s time to see what he can produce in August.