Stu Cowan: Only milestone Habs Brendan Gallagher cares about is a Cup

Stu Cowan: Only milestone Habs  Brendan Gallagher cares about is a Cup
“Every player can improve,” Gallagher said with a smile when it was mentioned his meeting must have been quick. “There’s little details and little things that they’ll mention to you and, obviously, every player’s happy to get coached. It’s a chance to get better. You take the good, learn from the bad and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Former Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien said he had to remind himself to talk with Gallagher every once in a while just to tell him he was doing a great job because there was basically nothing to criticize about his game. Gallagher is a coach’s dream — a player who shows up to play not only every game, but every shift. He set a career high in goals this season with 33 after scoring 31 last season and played in all 82 games despite the physical pounding he takes by constantly going to the dirty areas on the ice.

Montreal Canadiens’ Brendan Gallagher meets the media at the Bell Sports Complex in Brossard on April 9, 2019. John Mahoney / Montreal Gazette

Gallagher gives Julien credit for helping turn him into a 30-goal scorer. Gallagher was struggling when Julien replaced Therrien on Feb. 14, 2017, and finished that season with 10 goals in 64 games. Julien said he was going to give Gallagher a regular linemate to try to develop chemistry and put him with veteran centre Tomas Plekanec. Gallagher said he talked a lot with Plekanec about finding layers on the ice for scoring chances and about how getting to those spots had to become instinctive.

At the start of training camp this season, Julien put Gallagher with centre Phillip Danault and left-winger Tomas Tatar, and they stayed together all season.

“Both Phil and Tuna, those two guys are as smart as any players that I’ve played with in this league,” Gallagher said. “They both understand so much about the game and it’s pretty easy for us to talk on the bench, figure some things out and, if things aren’t going well, make some adjustments.”

Not only did that line produce offensively — Tatar (25-33-58) and Danault (12-41-53) both set career highs for points — they were also used to shut down the other teams’ top lines.

Gallagher’s goals didn’t come easy, with 29 of his 33 scored in five-on-five situations, which ranks ninth in the NHL. He also showed more of an ability to score from long range this season instead of his typical “Gally goals” where he bangs in a loose puck in the crease while getting hammered by a defenceman.

Could that be a case of his left hand — which was broken twice, requiring surgery each time, after getting hit with slapshots during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons — finally healing?

“It’s something that I worked on,” Gallagher said. “Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. It’s part of learning. Part of just growing and understanding where we’re at with my body.”

Nothing is easy about the way Gallagher plays hockey and his body takes a brutal beating as a result. That’s why he decided to turn down an invitation to play for Team Canada at the IIHF World Hockey Championship for the second straight year after being part of the gold-medal team in 2016. He takes great pride in having been able to play all 82 games for the Canadiens in each of the last two seasons.

“For me, the focus is on winning here,” Gallagher said. “It was an awesome experience (at the 2016 world championship). We were able to win. I had a lot of fun. Hockey Canada treats you awesome. It’s one of those things where you play 82 games and, at the same time, it takes probably two months away from your training and your preparation into next year (by going to the world championship). So I think I’m more comfortable going back home, using a little bit of time to rest and recover and then getting back in the gym as soon as possible and getting better.”

The Canadiens have missed the playoffs for two straight seasons and three of the last four years. But that’s not what Gallagher is focused on heading into next season.

“It’s the seven (seasons) that I’ve played that you haven’t won (the Stanley Cup),” he said. “That’s what you’re playing for — you want to win. It doesn’t matter how far you go or how early your season ends. You have the same feeling talking to you guys until, ultimately, you can say you succeeded. The reason we play this game is to be winners. It’s a very competitive league and I’ve got a lot of belief in the people running this organization and the players that we have in this locker room that that is the goal. It’s always the goal when you play for the Montreal Canadiens.
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