In what is a rarity in the NHL, Brian Gionta was awarded a penalty shot in overtime in the Montreal Canadiens’ final game of the season against the New York Rangers. The captain skated slowly down the ice, then pulled a triple deke; backhand, forehand, backhand, to beat Cam Talbot and seal the win for Montreal.
“Gionta’s our captain, our leader, our unsung hero. It couldn’t finish on a better note,” Head Coach Michel Therrien said after the game.
“It’s something I go to a lot on penalty shots or shootouts,” Gionta added.
Less than a week later, in the Habs’ playoff opener against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Gionta did it again, this time shorthanded. After breaking past defenceman Victor Hedman, Gionta aimed a shot five-hole on goalie Anders Lindback. The save was made but the puck was left sitting in the crease and as Gionta skated by, he slammed the puck home to tie the game 2-2.
These clutch moments are just some examples of why Gionta is Montreal’s captain and the unsung hero. Even though he stands at just 5’7, the 35-year-old forward is just as fierce a competitor as anyone. His 776 games over 12 seasons are proof of that.
Early in his career with the New Jersey Devils, Gionta was an offensive force, putting up as many as 48 goals in a season and playing on the top line with guys like Alex Mogilny and Jamie Langenbrunner. He also won a Stanley Cup with the Devils in 2003, in his second year in the league.
Gionta brings that experience to the Habs. In the four seasons since he was named captain of the Habs, Montreal has made the playoffs three times.
Last year, in the shortened season, the team rebounded from last in the Eastern Conference to first and proved this year that wasn’t a fluke by hitting the 100 point mark.
Now consider this. In his first season as captain, 2010-11, Gionta played all 82 games and the team finished with 96 points, good for sixth in the east. The next season, Gionta played only 31 games because of various arm injuries, and the team finished last in the conference. Gionta has missed only one regular season game since between the shortened season and this season and both have seen Montreal near the top of the conference.
While Gionta’s numbers as a Hab are far from team leading (he had 18 goals while Max Pacioretty had 39) what Gionta brings to the team is experience leadership that can’t be quantified by stats. There is no one else on the roster with the playoff experience and hockey experience that Gionta has and so in the room, he becomes just as important of a teacher and leader as the coach does.
For this reason, Gionta won the the Jacques Beauchamp trophy as the team’s unsung hero. Fittingly, he received the award before the game against the Rangers. According to the team’s website “the trophy is awarded annually to the member of the Canadiens who played a dominant role during the regular season, without earning any particular honor” which encompasses everything Gionta brings to the Habs.
He may not be the flashiest player or the go to guy for offence, but he brings stability and leadership to a young team on the brink of success. If Montreal is going to go deep in the playoffs, they’ll need strong goaltending from Carey Price and lots of goals from Pacioretty. But they’ll also need Gionta’s leadership. And they can expect to get a lot of it.
“You play your game in a certain way for your teammates. It’s nice that people outside of the team can also see that and recognize that,” Gionta said. “I’m very fortunate to have played here for five years already. It’s a great city and a great environment, and I cherish that every day.”