MONTREAL – It was in the seventh minute of the second period of the Montreal Canadiens’ 3-1 win over the New York Islanders that Alex Galchenyuk had a sequence that typified the type of progress he’s made of late.
The Montreal forward pressed hard on the backcheck, closed down his side of the ice, forced a turnover and got his feet moving to support the breakout. The puck came to him from centre Phillip Danault, he took two steps and filtered it back to him and then continued to charge up the ice to give Danault an option in the offensive zone.
Then Galchenyuk received the puck, turned Islanders forward Cal Clutterbuck inside out and drew a hooking penalty.
That last part led to the winning goal, which came off Jonathan Drouin’s stick 1:32 later, but it was all the things Galchenyuk did away from the puck that stood out about the sequence. That’s where his biggest issues have been in the five years leading into this one, and things didn’t appear to be all that different in that regard at the beginning of this season.
“He’s going in the right direction, and he’s much better than he was at a certain point when he was really a player who was just waiting for the puck, who didn’t really think too much about his game without the puck,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien a day earlier. “Now he’s a player who works hard to play at both ends. He’s a player who excels on offence, he’s a goal-scorer and we want him to continue to do that, but we also want him to take a certain pride in his defensive game and he’s doing that.”
That can be the one positive by-product of this season – not just for Galchenyuk but also for a player like 22-year-old Nikita Scherbak. He scored Montreal’s third goal against the Islanders and appears to have taken a massive leap from where he started this year.
“I think I just learned a lot of stuff to be more mature, to be more professional,” said Scherbak. “Not just at the rink, but outside of the rink, trying to eat healthy stuff and stuff like that. Take care of small details, that’s probably the biggest thing.”
Rolling your sleeves up and putting in the work is another.
Scherbak, a 2014 first-round pick, had a great opportunity to steal a spot on this team out of training camp and was cut more than a week and a half before it closed.
Here’s what Canadiens director of player personnel Martin Lapointe told Sportsnet about him back then:
“He has to be able to chip a puck out and not lose the puck and get a turnover from it because when that happens it looks like he doesn’t care about the play. I think he’s cheating offensively, hoping the puck will squirt loose. Details of the game are tough to do and demand more energy than what he tries to do by grabbing a puck at the end of his stick. If you don’t get your body involved physically, it’s less demanding. But he needs to understand he needs to get his body involved and it’s going to hurt.
“You need to be huffing and puffing sometimes to win a puck, but hockey’s played like that.”
It was a nice goal Scherbak scored, coming in late to the play from the bench and firing home a well-timed pass from Brendan Gallagher. He also had a great chance in the first period, when he smashed a rebound from Charles Hudon’s point shot into the post.
But the shift that stood out most from Scherbak in the game came late in the second period, when he was in hard on the forecheck and pinned the puck behind the Islanders’ net before having to peel back and break up a play 30 seconds later in his own end. Then he dug a puck out and got to centre ice and got into the Islanders’ zone again.
Scherbak got hit twice on that shift, and he was visibly in a bit of pain before taking his place on the bench and huffing and puffing to regain his breath.
We call that progress. It comes with facing adversity and looking inward to recognize how to overcome it.
That’s what Galchenyuk did, too.
“I had never really been a fourth-line player but that’s where I finished last year and started this year,” Galchenyuk told Sportsnet on Monday. “I could’ve just gotten down about it, but I decided it was time to get to work and I’m really happy about how I focused on what I needed to do.”
That’s the process Drouin is embarking on.
This season has turned out to be nothing like the one he envisioned after he was traded to the Canadiens from the Tampa Bay Lightning on June 15.
Drouin was brought in to be Montreal’s top centre, having played his first professional seasons on the wing, and it has been a humbling experience for him. He has just 10 goals and 22 assists (he added one on Paul Byron’s goal to tie the game 1-1 in the fist period) for 32 points in 58 games.
“There’s a lot of stuff that [I’ve] learned,” Drouin said. “Consistency on my part is my biggest problem and it’s the biggest thing I gotta change. … Some games I’m good for two-three games and after it goes down. Not having a bad game is I think what you gotta do. You gotta be consistent on that part.”
How do you do that?
“It goes to being a good pro,” said Drouin. “I guess I’m 22, but there’s a lot of stuff I gotta learn on that side every night – showing up and having a good attitude and not bringing yourself down if it’s just a bad game or a bad shift.”
Galchenyuk, who’s 24, has gone through it and appears to just now be coming out on the other end.
Him, Scherbak and Drouin figure to be big parts of the future for the Canadiens, so anything they learn in this lost season for the team should pay dividends for them down the road.