TAMPA, Fla. — They may have lost the game, but the Montreal Canadiens found their collective game face Wednesday — and it turned out to be Brendan Gallagher's.
All it took was a little blood in the water — well, quite a bit of blood, actually, and it was coursing down the alternate captain's scowling, moustachioed mug — to help the Habs rise to the challenge posed by the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final.
The night's only real disappointment was the result: a 3-1 loss and a 2-0 series deficit. But included in that outcome was an unmistakable sense of momentum, remarkable considering the scoreboard, going into Game 3 on Friday in Montreal.
"We did a lot of good things last night," forward Cole Caufield said Thursday before the team headed back to Canada.
"Obviously, some bounces didn't go our way, but that's hockey — you've got to move on and deal with it.... We just have to stick with what works and what got us here."
That would include Gallagher, the chippy 29-year-old firebrand from Edmonton who went into the ice face-first during a goal-mouth tussle late in the lost cause of Monday's 5-1 defeat. Photos of his gory scowl as he left the ice soon became a social-media sensation on hockey Twitter.
Gallagher, whose entire 11-year NHL career has been with the Habs, still had the scars when the team put him out face-first to greet the media following Wednesday’s pre-game skate to deliver a clear message: there's a long way to go.
"From my experience in this league, the teams that handle these situations the best are the ones that can really just sit back and simplify the whole situation that you're in, not get overwhelmed by it and not overthink it," he said.
"When we play the way we need to play — we play our game, we dictate the style of hockey it is — we can compete with anyone."
Gallagher's frenetic brand of smash-mouth hockey was on full display Wednesday.
At one point early in the first period, he lost the puck, his stick and his footing all at once while trying to exit Montreal territory. Sprawled at the blue line, he managed to bat the puck out of danger with his glove and used his outstretched body to block the point-blank slapshot that followed.
"He's the guy who drives the bus around here. He's pushing the pace in practice, in the weight room — he's the guy who's definitely leading the charge when it comes to intensity and bringing that work ethic," said defenceman Jon Merrill.
"When you see a guy like that, laying it all out there and doing whatever he can for this team to win, it's definitely a motivating factor for us."
Hopes that the Habs would have 7,000 more motivating factors in the stands for Game 3 were dashed Wednesday when the Quebec government refused to increase the Bell Centre's COVID-19 capacity limit from 3,500 to 10,500.
"Unfortunately, I think there'll be a lot more people outside the building than inside, which will be little bit different," said forward Eric Staal.
"But we know that they're there, we know that the support's there, and we know that everybody is as excited as we are to be in this position in the final."
They will also have Dominique Ducharme back behind the bench after a two-week forced separation, the result of the interim head coach testing positive for COVID-19 during the semifinal series against Vegas.
"I know it's got to be killing Dom for the last two weeks, just missing our group and missing the daily activities of what we do and preparing," Staal said.
"For him to be with us in person will be huge for us."
If the first two games were any indication, the same will be true of Gallagher.
"He is that in-your-face guy that you're going to cross-check his face right into the ice, but you're still not going to stop him — he's gonna get up and keep going and smile," said assistant coach Luke Richardson.
"The guys love that about him — it definitely is a lead-by-example (situation), with the energy and the type of battle level that we have to have."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 1, 2021.
James McCarten, The Canadian Press