Gallagher’s Return Propels Habs To Huge Win At The Winter Classic

Photo: Maddie Meyer, Getty Images

Photo: Maddie Meyer, Getty Images

Gallagher’s Return Propels Habs To Huge Win At The Winter Classic

Brendan Gallagher returned to the Habs line-up for the first time in 17 games. Clearly, it was no coincidence that the Canadiens handily beat the Bruins in a 5-1 victory at the 2016 Winter Classic.

The Big Stage had been looming all season; a massive stadium setting, close enough to Montreal for fans to be able to attend, seating for almost 70,000 attendees, and all the pomp and circumstance of 2 days’ worth of events.

The Habs had just come out of a dismal December; their worst in franchise history. They had lost more games than they’d won (3 out of 14 were wins) and their confidence was shot.

Missing key players like Gallagher, and Carey Price, missing the scoring magic they’d experienced at the beginning of the season, multiple-goal games and decisive wins, suddenly the team was no longer leading in the standings. They weren’t that record-breaking team everyone was talking about through November; they were that record-breaking team that had fallen from grace.

And the pressure has to have been enormous as they were, to add to the mix, followed day and night by cameras filming the 24/7 series “Road To The Winter Classic”.

Any good team, no matter how focused, no matter how successful, can be driven to distraction by such pressure. But the Canadiens – the proverbial “storied franchise” – were struggling and the distractions could not have helped.

They ended December on a loss to the Florida Panthers just a day after winning their first-in-7 and the letdown was back. Fans could feel it; it made sense that the room was trying to overcome the dark clouds they were feeling descend upon them with every loss.

New Year’s Day loomed with excitement and electricity; the stage was set for what could be a massive win, or a humiliating loss.

Incredibly, it was more than just a win; many believe it was a turnaround.

Here’s how it played out, period by period:

First Period: Shots 14-3 Montreal

Goal: David Desharnais (Assists: Dale Weise, Alexei Emelin)

The story of the first period is reflected in the shots on goal. Boston got 2 shots at the beginning, and were held off for the majority of the period when they got a 3rd almost at the buzzer. Montreal came to play, and it showed. They were strong with puck management, possession, and shots.

The game took its first turn when David Desharnais – who had not scored since the game in which Gallagher was injured, 17 games ago – batted the puck into the net, and it crossed the line despite Tuukka Rask’s best efforts. The goal was scored just 1:14 into the period, truly setting the stage for the Habs.

It was an unusual goal too; batted in, but good nonetheless:

Here’s Rask desperately – unsuccessfully – grabbing for it:

You could see the Habs visibly grow with the opening goal. Their dominance only improved as the period wore on. Holding the Bruins off in shots was just one part of it; they were flying on that ice, and their speed was what helped stymie the Bruins.

Montreal is known for being a team of speed, but in the Winter Classic, it just seemed to be amplified; perhaps it was the grandeur of the stage, perhaps the glare of the sunlight, but it was apparent that the Habs were streaking across the surface, skating circles around the Bruins.

A couple of penalties and power plays on each side, and neither team capitalized on their man-advantage.

Second Period: Shots 14-11 Boston

Goals: Paul Byron (Assists: Brian Flynn, Mark Barberio), Brendan Gallagher (Assists: Max Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec)

The shots evened out, but the score did not; just 2 minutes into the second frame, Paul Byron – who has earned the nickname “Lord Byron” – scored a beautiful goal on a Rask rebound. It takes tremendous focus to keep the pressure on, especially when there are opposing players (bigger, too) who are crowding the net to try and keep the puck out. But Byron is a never-give-up guy, and this was the result:

(I love his kneeling pirouette, don’t you?)

With the Bruins now trailing by 2, the pressure mounted. The Habs killed two penalties – not only keeping the Bruins from scoring, but successfully carrying the puck down to the other side – and at 17:20, Brendan Gallagher scored this picture-perfect goal:

Max Pacioretty kept the puck bouncing on his stick, got it over to Gallagher, who also batted it in; there was a recap reference, on the NBC broadcast, to the Montreal Expos being present in the stadium.

Think about the skill it takes to persevere and score this kind of goal. It was a truly amazing return for a guy whose presence was conspicuously noted.

If you’d like to see Gallagher’s goal from 7 – yes 7 – different angles, check out this compilation video from TVA Sports. And enjoy the repeat of Gallagher’s celebratory whoops.

With the Bruins now rocked back on their heels, trailing 3-0, the Habs redoubled their efforts to play consistently. It worked, too; despite Tomas Plekanec in the box for the (ridiculous) delay-of-game penalty, the Bruins were clearly on a tear to score.

They almost did, too; Ryan Spooner got a shot to the net that would have gone in; but the Canadiens have Mike Condon, and this save makes a highlight reel not just for Condon’s portfolio, but for the Winter Classic – and beyond:

There is a tenth-of-a-second left on that clock; keeping the Bruins at bay was one thing but preserving a 3-0 lead going into the third period was bigger. Condon was absolutely spectacular all game long, but this was remarkable.

One note of concern: After the Byron goal, Dale Weise was cross-checked onto the ice and into an oncoming shot, by Kevan Miller. He left the ice for the dressing room, and did not return to the game. Thus far, there’s no word on his condition but it looks like a forearm injury:

Third Period: Shots 11-5 Boston

Goals:

  • Boston: Matt Beleskey (Assists: Adam McQuaid, Ryan Spooner)
  • Montreal: Max Pacioretty (Assists: Brendan Gallagher, Tomas Plekanec); Paul Byron (Assists: P.K. Subban, Nathan Beaulieu)

The Bruins continued their power play when the puck dropped for the third, but didn’t capitalize. However, it looked like they were on a mission, and after some pressure in the crease, they managed to put the puck past Mike Condon to break the shut-out.

It was too bad; Condon was playing on fire, and deserved the shut-out, but the Bruins finally found a way to beat him.

After that, it got even more contentious; the Bruins had been looking for ways to rattle the Habs, but they upped their game. Thing is, the Habs don’t play that style of hockey, and at 8:49 – just 5 minutes after the Beleskey goal – Max Pacioretty widened the gap between the two teams, making it 4-1.

On a perfect saucer pass from Brendan Gallagher (who erased any doubt that he was completely recovered from his fractured hand), Pacioretty beat Rask with a quick wrist shot:

No game is without its moments of drama, but the Winter Classic 2016 had a few; first, Tuukka Rask was hit in the throat with a puck during a Habs power play. This ensued:

He was clearly in pain – and no matter what team it is, it is not something any fan wants to see, especially this kind of dangerous injury.

Rask was tended to by his team medics, and returned to the net, likely shaken, but determined to play out the rest of the game.

Not too much later, a cameraman in the benches was hit by a puck, and a few minutes after that, Pacioretty skated past a camera lens that caught him off guard:

(He expressed his feelings too, with that stick tap to the glass).

At 18:18, Lars Eller was being held by Jimmy Hayes against the boards; he tried to get loose but could not, and without the referees making a call, Eller wrenched free with what was clearly seen by Hayes as a move to fight. Eller, however, didn’t drop the gloves or remove his helmet. Penalized for it, both players left the game.

Ten seconds later, Paul Byron scored his second of the game, and put the last nail in the Bruins’ coffin. Another rebound, another goal, and even as the clock ticked down, it looked like he was trying for a hat trick.

Here’s the 5th Habs goal:

The time ran out, and the Winter Classic ended with a decisive win by a Habs team that needed the win, the points, the confidence, and the celebration.

But no Boston-Montreal game is ever over until the brawl begins. Just before the time ran out, Beleskey flattened Brian Flynn against the boards, which led to Torrey Mitchell stepping in to stand up for his teammate. But perpetual goon, Zac Rinaldo, jumped into the fray, and it looked like this:

It got much more contentious, with Rinaldo trying to punch Mitchell in the stomach, and the fight was broken up by referees.

The celebration, however, was not marred by it; P.K. Subban was positively giddy:

How can you not smile after seeing that?

Some Thoughts

I will keep these to a minimum, as there is another article in the works that will delve deeper into the game and its implications. But here are my initial thoughts:

  • Gallagher, while just one player, is clearly one player who makes a difference. Now, this was just one game, but his return to the line-up was blatantly obvious as a catalyst for their success. Part of this is because there is a trickle-down effect, the lines change back to where they were before he left, and everyone is playing in an ideal role for him.
  • Gallagher also has an ability very few players possess: he is – as was said often in the post-game analysis on NBC – a courageous player. He takes risks not many take, and for a smaller player, that is definitely a sign of courage. Case in point: when Zdeno Chara, twice, loomed over the puck, Gallagher dismissed the “safer” route and went right in.

This was one result:

Yes, Chara looks like he’s trying to rip off Gallagher’s head, but Gally took it in stride, as he always does.

It’s that tenacious attitude that makes him such a leader, such a great hockey player, and earned him a goal and assist at this game.

  • I cannot close this out without huge props to Mike Condon. This was not only a big game because of the Winter Classic; Condon grew up in Massachusetts, this was his home town, and with 45 family members and friends representing in the stands, and his incredibly-proud father (who was interviewed the day before the game),  there was an added element of motivation for him to succeed.
  • He did more than that: he deserved the shutout but his single goal-against is testament to his skill, his calm, his composure, and his value. In post-game talk, Kevin Weekes stated that Condon is trusted by all: the team, the coaches, and the management. But the one person who trusts him most is Carey Price. That’s solid endorsement for Condon, and he is worth every bit of it.
  • The Winter Classic is a huge deal: the publicity, the lead-up, the alumni, the fireworks, the grandeur of the stadium, the endless trivia facts reported by color commentators, the even-more endless parade of stock photos shown between periods and plays. But it is still a regular-season game, and though the bragging rights are pretty big – especially with these two teams – it was a huge 2 points for the Habs who needed to come back from their Dark December.
  • It will be back-to-focus for their next game, which will be against the Philadelphia Flyers on January 5th, a day before coming home to the Bell Centre for the second of a back-to-back. It’s been a long road trip, not always the most celebratory. But starting the new year with this big-stage win, the Habs could well be proof of what every analyst has said: the Winter Classic tends to be a turnaround game for most teams participating.

If so, we are in for a big 2016 as this second half of the season begins on the right foot.

Next game will be Tuesday, January 5, vs. the Flyers. Puck drop is at 7:30 p.m.

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