Nikita Scherbak, middle, celebrates his first NHL goal. Image by: Getty Images
A handful of the Canadiens most important players have gone down due to injury, but thanks to other plays stepping up, they haven't missed a beat.
Alex Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher, Andrew Shaw, Andrei Markov, Greg Pateryn. That sounds like it could be the Montreal Canadiens’ starting lineup, but is actually an abbreviated version of their injury list which also includes veterans David Desharnais and Paul Byron.
Ever since Galchenyuk, who was leading the team in scoring at the time, hurt himself on Dec. 4 the Canadiens have been plagued by injuries. It must feel like déjà vu for the Habs, who saw a similar injury crisis, including a season-ending one to Carey Price, help derail their season last year.
This season, however, as the injuries have piled up, the Canadiens have kept winning. Since they lost Galchenyuk, only four teams have earned more points. Montreal has also been playing some great hockey, scoring 3.38 goals per game and a 56 Corsi for percentage during that stretch, the fifth and second best in the league, respectively.
The Canadiens remaining star players, especially a healthy Price, have contributed immensely to the team’s success despite missing some big pieces. But the injuries have also seen some of the Habs lesser known players carry the torch while their teammates sit out.
“We face adversity, but we don’t change the way we want to play the game,” said Habs coach Michel Therrien ahead of Saturday’s victory over the Leafs. “We give opportunities to different players in different roles. They embrace the challenge.”
Perhaps nobody on the Habs team has embraced the challenge more than Jeff Petry, who has been without defensive partner Markov since Dec. 17. Petry has been playing just over 24 minutes a night to fill the gap. He has put up nine points in those ten games since Markov’s injury playing alongside Nathan Beaulieu, who has also played big minutes of late.
Petry has been an important member of the Canadiens since they acquired him in March 2015, but this year he has been playing like an elite NHL defenseman. Among defensemen, only Brent Burns has more even strength goals and only six others have more points at five-on-five.
In terms of opportunities being opened up by injuries, Phillip Danault, who started the season on the fourth line, is now the Habs first line center. He has contributed seven points in 11 games since inheriting the role, while linemates Max Pacioretty and Alexander Radulov have thrived alongside him.
That top line has carried the Habs offense since Galchenyuk’s injury with some big help from another unlikely suspect: Paul Byron. The winger has 11 points in his last 15 games, the best stretch of his career. He has already put up his highest career point total, 23, despite the season only being at the halfway point.
However, against the Dallas Stars last Wednesday, Byron, as well as Gallagher, were both sidelined, forcing the Canadiens to make a pair of AHL callups. In fact, during Saturday’s 5-3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Habs had six players in the lineup who were not part of the team on opening day.
“Guys are getting opportunities and they are playing great,” said defenseman Shea Weber. “With injuries gives opportunity. Guys come in, play their first game, get their first NHL goals.”
That’s exactly what Nikita Scherbak did on Saturday, scoring on his very first NHL shot in the dying seconds of the first period. Scherbak had just been called up the day before, after the pair of injuries against Dallas, but provided a crucial spark for the Canadiens.
He played on the Canadiens fourth line, made up entirely of players who had been recently called up from the AHL’s St. John’s IceCaps. Linemate Michael McCarron also scored against Toronto, his first goal of the season.
“When you have kind of a depleted lineup like we do, and you have young guys stepping in and playing big minutes for us and coming up with big goals it is great to see,” Price said.
While the Habs veterans are happy with the contributions they have been getting from new faces, they know they will still need more. It could be weeks before the team is healthy again.
“Guys can’t take anything for granted, they’ve got to keep going for us,” Weber said. “Guys need to step up and keep playing bigger roles.”
There has been some rare good news on the injury front for the Canadiens recently. Both Markov and Galchenyuk were back skating with the team in practice on the weekend and are expected to return soon.
But even as some players return, the Habs proved on Saturday, and by not losing in regulation in their last six games, that they are a tough team to beat no matter who is in the lineup.