With Montreal’s season hanging in the balance, Alex Galchenyuk didn’t waste any time.
Less than two minutes into Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final, he found his way to the front of the net to redirect a P.K. Subban point shot past Henrik Lundqvist.
It was a nice moment for the sophomore, who has been beset by injury in what has been a difficult season even when healthy. It was also a nice moment for the Canadiens, who are watching 2012’s third overall pick round into form even as the team plays the most significant hockey it’s been a part of in two decades (Tuesday's Game 5 victory marked Montreal's deepest playoff run since the team's 1993 Cup win.)
Galchenyuk has been in the thick of it.
The 20-year-old was injured in Game 80 of the regular season. The Canadiens have been tight-lipped about the incident, describing it as a “lower-body injury,” but NHL.com’s Arpon Basu suggests it was likely a knee problem.
“The injury appeared to happen when Chicago forward Marian Hossa fell into Galchenyuk along the boards and landed on his knee,” Basu wrote in an April 10 article. “Galchenyuk did not play another shift after the collision.”
The injury nearly cost Galchenyuk his chance to participate in the postseason, as he only made it back into the lineup for Game 2 of the Habs’ third-round series against the Rangers. That first game was difficult, as Montreal was outshot 7-2 and outscored 1-0 with him on the ice at even strength, but he’s been finding the range since with three points in three games.
But Galchenyuk’s scoring, though the obvious point to focus on, isn’t the only (or even the primary) item worth considering.
When a 20-year-old puts up decent offensive numbers in limited minutes, the assumption is generally that the coach is doing what he can to protect the player—getting him minutes against the opposition’s depth lines, giving him lots of shifts starting in the offensive zone and very few starting in the defensive end of the rink.
Montreal’s Michel Therrien has opted for a different strategy.
Therrien has thrown the young forward into the deep end, zone start-wise. The following chart shows the number of shifts starting with a defensive zone faceoff at even strength, minus the number starting with an offensive zone faceoff. Thus, a positive number indicates tough zone starts and a negative one means lots of time in the offensive zone:
Over the last three games, Galchenyuk has started 20 shifts in the defensive zone and just 11 in the offensive zone. That compares to his teammates, who have combined for 26 defensive zone starts and 37 starts in the attacking end.
In other words, Galchenyuk has been on the ice for nearly half of his team’s even-strength defensive zone draws, but less than a quarter of the faceoffs in the offensive zone.
Therrien has also clearly not taken pains to land a favourable matchup for Galchenyuk.
The young forward has played almost exclusively against New York’s top nine. Injuries at centre make New York’s lines a moving target, but the wingers have been more constant, which allows us to track Galchenyuk’s matchups by looking at the amount of ice time he had against given wingers:
Primarily, Galchenyuk has seen the Rangers’ third line of Benoit Pouliot, Mats Zuccarello and Dominic Moore/Derick Brassard. But he’s also spent significant minutes against both the Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis lines.
To sum up: Galchenyuk has been taking on tough defensive zone minutes, and almost exclusively against New York’s three most dangerous lines. He’s been used in this role by Therrien despite the fact that he’s a 20-year-old with just over 100 games of NHL experience coming off a long-term injury. And he has three points in four games over that span.
Obviously, this isn’t all Galchenyuk. He’s played with good partners, for one thing—initially Tomas Plekanec and Thomas Vanek, more recently Plekanec and Brian Gionta.
But Galchenyuk has done his share, too. He’s already a wonderful two-way player, but there’s more to him than that.
Both of Galchenyuk’s goals, for example, came off a willingness to crash the net hard—once giving the Canadiens the lead in an elimination game, the other time securing an overtime win:
Galchenyuk acknowledged to The Globe and Mail’s Sean Gordon that it wasn’t a gorgeous display of skill that created that goal.
“Not a top-three goal skill-wise, but one of the most important in my career so far, for sure,” he said. “It was a struggle, obviously, through the injury process . . . I couldn’t be more happy right now.”
Neither could the Canadiens. It’s true that Galchenyuk is just one player in a series featuring a lot of excellent NHLers, but his return to the lineup adds a critical ingredient for Montreal.
His willingness to go hard to the net is welcome on a team that can’t match the Rangers’ size. New York has been victimized twice by that particular trait. If it wants to advance, it would do well to find a way to handle Galchenyuk in front of the net.
But it’s everything else that makes Galchenyuk’s return so important. Therrien can trust his line out there against anyone and in any situation, which has allowed the Habs coach to zone-match them against offensive players without worrying too much that they will be burned by the assignment. He’ll certainly continue to give Galchenyuk and co. tough minutes for however much longer the Canadiens’ playoff run lasts.
Galchenyuk’s presence has improved the odds that it will last one more round.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report; follow him on Twitter for more of his work.