The Canadiens’ Sneaky Snipers

With two wins in three nights the Montreal Canadiens earned their way back into the playoff picture this week. Shea Weber, who had a goal in a 3-1 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers and the 4-0 shutout of the New York Islanders, and Brendan Gallagher, who also scored against the Flyers, aren’t exactly unassuming characters, but they’ve quietly become two of the NHL’s biggest snipers. At or near the top of each player’s respective positional goal-scoring charts, they’re coming through when the teams needs their offense the most.

Weber Grills Pucks

In the game against the Islanders, the latest and most important must-win of the Canadiens’ season, Weber led all players with six shots on goal, while protecting Price, dishing out hits, and generally being the complete defender he’s built a career on. He’s the captain and remains the Canadiens’ most important player who doesn’t wear hockey’s version of the tools of ignorance. His goal was the 13th of the season, which tied him for eighth among rearguards in 2018-19, and all but one of them (the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Kris Letang) have played at least 20 more games than Weber.

Carey Price, Nathan MacKinnon, Shea Weber,
Colorado Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon moves in on Montreal Canadiens Carey Price as Canadiens captain Shea Weber defends. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes)

Weber is a the three-time winner of the NHL’s hardest shot competition and the man who put a puck through the twine at the 2010 Olympics, but his goal against the Islanders was placement over power. Opponents have been able to take away his cannonading shot from the point on the Canadiens’ historically abysmal power play this season and his four power-play goals are on-pace to be his lowest total in a full season.

His nine even-strength goals in only played 50 games played, however, are approaching his career high of 12 in 2008-09, when he played 81 games, and his 9.2 percent shooting percentage would be the fourth-highest of his 14-year career. The 6-foot-4, 229-pound stoic even allowed himself a rare smile on the bench after scoring against the Flyers.

Shea Weber, Montreal Canadiens
Shea Weber, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Weber, who finished second to Alexander Ovechkin in the NHL players’ poll for best shot, now has 202 career goals, first among active NHL defensemen. He’s three ahead of the Boston Bruins’ Zdeno Chara, the only player in history with a harder shot at the skills competition (108.8 miles-per-hour to 108.5), and at 6-foot-9 one of the few men on the ice Weber physically looks up to, and he’s scored seven more than fellow beardy behemoth Brent Burns of the San Jose Sharks.

Gallagher Is Even Strength Elite

Alternate captain Brendan Gallagher is the Canadiens’ spark plug, a 5-foot-9, 184-pound bundle of energy with a will to win and a fearlessness to do whatever it takes to get there. While not rising (sinking?) to the level of rival and comparable Brad Marchand of the Bruins, he’s the type of player teammates and fans adore, and opponents loathe. Gallagher’s fight against the Islanders’ Thomas Hickey (on Thursday was an example of achieving both at once.

Brendan Gallagher
Brendan Gallagher #11, Montreal Canadiens – February 20, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Gallagher goal in Philadelphia, against the team he earned his first career hat trick earlier in the season, was his team-leading 31st. It ended the Canadiens’ goal-scoring drought at 100 minutes, 11 seconds and opened the scoring, a key part of the their game this season. When scoring first the Canadiens have a 28-6-5 record, including 14-5-2 on the road. It’s not always how many or how, it’s when.

“I don’t think it’s the fact that he scored, but I think it’s the fact that he works so hard every single (shift) like it’s the last time he’s going on the ice every time,” said teammate Phillip Danault about Gallagher’s impact after the win. “He’s a big leader for us,” (from “Brendan Gallagher puts the fight back in Canadiens,” Montreal Gazette, 03/20/19)

Montreal Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher
Montreal Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher (Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports)

After twice breaking his hand, injuries that cost him significant time in 2015-16 and 2016-17, Gallagher has matched last season’s career high in goals with eight more games to play. With his hand strength back and his shot harder and more accurate, he’s scoring more from the outside and having an even better season than optimists predicted. His 11.5 percent shooting percentage is a career second to his 44-game rookie season and matches Evgeni Malkin and Zach Parise in 2018-19.

That’s not the only heady company Gallagher is keeping this season. Like Weber he has four power play goals, but with 26 goals scored at five-on-five he’s tied for third in the NHL with none other than seven-time Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard Trophy winner Ovechkin, who will likely win his eighth this season, and ahead of names like Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, Nikita Kucherov, Patrick Kane and Auston Matthews.

Gallagher’s goals might not be as pretty as some of theirs, but he’s willing and eager to go to the wall to get them for his team. “He’s the type of player who shows up every game,” said head coach Claude Julien. “Whether it’s a big game or not, you know what you’re going to get from Gallagher, and coaches like to know what they’re going to have at their disposal game after game. He’s one of those warriors who gives everything every game; at the end of the game he’s spent.” (from “Brendan Gallagher is just like the reliable burger that first brought him to the Canadiens,” The Athletic, 02/22/19)

Two Man Advantage

The Canadiens are currently eighth in the NHL in even strength goals for, but the blighted power play has kept them on the playoff bubble instead of jockeying for position and home ice in the first round. They’re last in the league with 27 power play goals on the season for a 12.3 percent success rate. It might not cost Julien his job but it should make assistant coaches and power play advisors Kirk Muller and Dominique Ducharme a tad nervous.

The Canadiens’ success is often credited to their goaltender, but the fact they’re even in the playoff conversation is thanks to the contributions of Weber and Gallagher, in the dressing room and into the back of the opponent’s net. All things being even.