MONTREAL — When the Toronto Maple Leafs iced a fully healthy lineup for their opening playoff match against the Montreal Canadiens, forward Alex Galchenyuk wasn’t on it.
“It wasn’t easy to have that conversation with him because he had played well and had come a long way,” Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “He had certainly contributed to our team’s success, but I did reassure him that he was going to play and be an important part of it.”
A horrific injury to Leafs captain John Tavares in Game 1 opened the door Galchenyuk to play in Game 2. A lower body injury to Nick Foligno prompted another change to the line for Games 3 and 4.
It hasn’t phased him.
Galchenyuk recorded a career playoff-high three points with a goal and two assists. But it was the two primary assists that helped the Leafs beat the Canadiens 4-0 and take a 3-1 series lead over the Canadiens with a chance to end the series in Toronto on Thursday.
“He’s proven his worth right now,” said Joe Thornton, who also scored for the Leafs on Tuesday. ” He just competes every single night, it’s great to watch him.”
Galchenyuk helped open the scoring at 1:27 of the second period when he was in the middle part of a tic-tac-toe setup to William Nylander, who extended his goal-scoring streak to four games.
Equally impressive was the move he made on the zone entry to stay onside. Galchenyuk kicked his leg up to reach the plane of the blueline.
Later in the frame, Galchenyuk skated along the left wing for a 2-on-1 scoring opportunity. He connected with Jason Spezza, who stormed to the net to beat Montreal goaltender Carey Price at for a 2-0 lead at 12:28.
Galchenyuk capped his night with an empty-net goal late in the third period to put the game away for Toronto.
Goaltender Jack Campbell picked up 32 saves for his first-career playoff shutout.
“It’s not easy to come in and out of the lineup but when he’s in he’s given us a spark,” Campbell said of Galchenyuk. “The play he made tonight was world class so it was awesome”.
Galchenyuk entered the NHL with lofty expectations. A third-overall pick by the Canadiens in the 2012 NHL Draft, the forward enjoyed some early success in his career, highlighted by a 30-goal season with Montreal in 2015-16. But he struggled to find a stable role since then. He bounced around a few different clubs before the Maple Leafs acquired Galchenyuk in a trade with the Carolina Hurricanes on Feb. 15 in exchange for forward Egor Korshkov and defenceman David Warsofsky.
The move occurred just days after the Carolina Hurricanes aquired the forward from the Senators. Upon acquiring the player, the Hurricanes had put him on waivers with no takers.
With expectations low, the Leafs aimed at restoring his confidence. Following their trade with Carolina, they assigned the forward to their American Hockey League affiliate to work on his game, a humbling moment for a player who had always been in the big leagues.
“The reports that came down out of the AHL were nothing but positive and that’s not always the case for guys who have had a lot of time in the NHL” Keefe said. “So he’s handled himself extremely well and I think he just has a great passion for the game.”
The investment by the club in Galchenyuk had a vesting interest for the Leafs. With the team under tight salary cap constraints, Toronto was able to unlock the most out of a player making just $1.05 million this season. The team was also able to change adjust their trade deadline targets based on the production Galchenyuk brought to the club.
“Alex Galchenyuk’s rise to prominence altered a little bit of what we were looking for,” Leafs GM Kyle Dubas said on trade deadline day.”
Toronto losing Tavares to a concussion and knee injury could have been the ultimate equalizer the underdog Canadiens looking for some sort of advantage in the series. Losing Foligno after the following game could have put Toronto further in a hole, but players like Galchenyuk and linemates Nylander and Alex Kerfoot filled the void while showing the team’s depth.
And for Galchenyuk, the former Canadien of seven seasons, he isn’t revelling in any revenge tour against his former club.
“Not really to be honest,” Galchenyuk said “I’m just happy to get the win.”
Campbell does the job in back-to-back stars
The Maple Leafs put Campbell back in goal on consecutive nights. Normally not a question for a goaltender who is performing well, a leg injury earlier in the season forced the team to monitor his health all season long.
Campbell shut the door with a shutout performance, but his team did an excellent job of keep Montreal away from their net.
“We’re really doing a great job of eliminating their grade-A chances, and then we capitalize on ours,” Campbell said.
Nylander the playoff performer, Kerfoot the supporter
His fourth goal in as many games has been big for Toronto’s production. With the top-line limited to goals in just one of the four playoff games, the second-line contribution under difficult circumstances has been the story of the series thus far.
“He’s really led the way,” Spezza said of Nylander. “He’s showed a lot of determination and his board battles have been second-to-none on our team.
Alex Kerfoot also recorded three assists rounding out what has been the line for Toronto through four playoff games.
Brooks and Dermott in, Nash and Sandin out
The Leafs made a couple of lineup changes on the back-to-back and had forward Adam Brooks and Travis Dermott make their 2021 playoff debuts.
“Brooks has played well with Thornton and Spezza and that’s part of it,” Keefe said.
The coach also added that his conversation with Dermott not starting in the playoffs was as difficult as it was with Galchenyuk.
Joe Thornton became the oldest players in franchise history to record a point in the playoffs at 41 years and 327 days with his goal in the second period.
Nylander’s four-game goal scoring streak matched longest in franchise history in the modern era (since 1943-44) tying him with Wendel Clark in 1986.
With a 3-1 series lead, it’s the first time the Maple Leafs have held a two-game lead in a postseason series of any kind since 2002 when they were up 2-0 on the New York Islanders. They went on to win that series in seven games.