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Canadiens need to start games with urgency Gallagher consistently brings

MONTREAL — Brendan Gallagher’s stat line in this 2-1 loss to the Nashville Predators for his Montreal Canadiens: Ten shots on goal, 15 attempts, two penalties, one hit, one takeaway, one lost faceoff, no goals, no assists, no points.

No matter how you evaluate his performance, that line makes it abundantly clear he was involved from start to finish on Sunday.

Had more of Gallagher’s teammates followed his lead, the Canadiens would’ve ended the night with two more points banked in the standings.

But Gallagher has more than 700 games of NHL experience, and you’d have to jam a bunch of his young teammates’ games together to combine for as much. He knows how to start a game, how to maintain his level throughout one, and how to finish it properly.

Others are learning to do the same — especially in the second half of a back-to-back situation.

“When you’re able to get into it physically, emotionally, I think the adrenaline takes over,” Gallagher said. “And that’s when you find your legs.”

What you can’t do is sit around waiting for someone else to find them for you, which is what too many of the Canadiens essentially did in this game, with Gallagher bringing them into the fight late in the second period with a crease-crashing play that led to a disallowed goal and was immediately followed by one that stood for Jake Evans.

Coach Martin St. Louis said he liked the Canadiens’ start, and we can concede to his point about them opening with a 9-3 edge in shots earned before the penalty box doors started resembling those of a saloon, swinging open and shut six times over a seven-minute stint and breaking his team’s rhythm much more than that of the Predators.

But the Canadiens couldn’t clap on beat for 20 minutes after that. And even if their start was “good,” it wasn’t nearly as good as their second half of the game, which only added to a theme that has largely defined their season to date.

As colleague Alexis Belanger-Champagne pointed out to Gallagher in the locker room afterward, the Canadiens have scored the least of any team in the league in the first period through 28 games, and it’s led to them holding a 2-7-2 record when trailing after one.

They’ve been poor at times, and good at others, like they were in this game.

But poor never gets it done, and you have to be much better than just “good” at the start of a game to reverse such a trend.

Borrowing from Gallagher’s book (of just working desperately on every shift) would help, because the Canadiens were all doing exactly that to great effect over the last 30 minutes, which enabled them to win that portion of the game 1-0.

“We were making plays through the neutral zone, we were breaking the puck out and, if there was nothing, we were playing fast and going right back in and trusting the forecheck,” said St. Louis.

It wasn’t that different over the first seven minutes, but it was different enough for the Canadiens to once again fail to take the lead.

There was some hesitance there. Some reluctance on their part, as St. Louis put it, to take advantage of numerical advantages to make plays. And with rhythm broken, while trailing after Colton Sissons scored 11:41 into the first period, there was a tendency to force plays and an inability to execute on the ones that were open to them.

And then the Canadiens dipped. They stopped competing and needed Gallagher to carry them.

He did. He tried to do it from the start and hit a career high in shots on net before the end, and then he talked about how the Canadiens have to find their best level sooner in games while acknowledging that this team — which began the campaign as the third-youngest team in the NHL and has since gotten younger with the injury bug biting them like a mosquito chomping into exposed flesh on a dewy summer morning — is still in need of some seasoning. 

“You have to understand your own game and what gets you going and feeling good,” he said. “It’s just about getting to that early and focusing on a simplistic mindset like that.”

That’s been elusive for the Canadiens, who have too many players in the process of discovering themselves.

This team has also searched for its ability to turn a “good” start into an even better middle, which can again be expected for a group as inexperienced.

“We’re chasing consistency,” said St. Louis multiple times after the game, and the Canadiens are going to keep chasing it.

But part of the way they can find some is by taking a lesson from the first third of the season and doing the things that would keep them from constantly having to chase games.

That requires the type of effort and engagement Gallagher showed but too few of them did through the first half of Sunday’s game. And if he was able to bring it just the same when he entered the league at 20 years old 10 years ago, so can they.

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