BROSSARD, Quebec — Five years into his NHL career, Alex Galchenyuk was supposed to be the high-scoring center on the Montreal Canadiens’ top line.
Instead, the 23-year-old is scheduled to begin the NHL playoffs on the fourth unit alongside checkers Steve Ott and Andreas Martinsen. Montreal faces the Rangers in the opening game of the best-of-seven series Wednesday night at the Bell Centre.
“I won’t think about it,” Galchenyuk said Monday. “We’ve got Game 1 coming up and everybody’s got to contribute and bring something to the team.”
“Me, personally, I can’t wait to get it going. Not having a chance to play last year was difficult, so you’ve been waiting all year to have that opportunity to play in the playoffs and you’re just excited.”
The Canadiens, who rebounded from missing the playoffs last season to finishing first in the Atlantic Division, are a mostly healthy team with defensemen Shea Weber and Jordie Benn back on the ice after missing the end of the regular season with minor injuries. The only one absent was defenseman Alexei Emelin, who is expected to sit out the opener.
Up front, coach Claude Julien has a surplus of healthy players. With the Canadiens struggling on the attack, he is looking for at least a scoring threat from each of his four lines. That led to the controversial decision to put Galchenyuk on the fourth unit.
Julien likened it to 2014 when he was coaching Boston and the Bruins were upset in the second round by Montreal, who had former scoring star Danny Briere on the fourth line. Briere had a goal and an assist in the Canadiens’ 3-1 win in Game 7.
“In my estimation, it’s not who you play with, it’s how you play,” Julien said. “I think we need some scoring from all the lines.
“He can provide that from that line. I think I’ve got better balance and depth as far as scoring is concerned.
“Right now, we’re not worried about ourselves individually. We’re worried about how we can help the team. That’s what you’ve got to do in the playoffs. Hopefully, he can give us the same kind of game he gave us in Detroit, where he was an offensive threat.”
Galchenyuk skated with his new linemates in the final regular-season game and had some good chances. He also scored his fifth overtime goal of the season to win the game.
But for all his talent, the third overall pick from the 2012 draft has had a hard time convincing previous Habs coach Michel Therrien and then Julien, who took over on Feb. 14, that he is a legitimate top-line center. He spent most of his first four seasons playing left wing under Therrien.
When he was put at center late last season, he went on tear to reach 30 goals for the first time. But after a little more than a month at center under Julien, he was back on the wing. Now, he’s on the fourth line, although he should still get power-play time.
There have been concerns about his consistency and his defensive play, but none about his skill and flair for offense. He had 23 points before being injured 25 games into the season and ended with 17 goals and 44 points in 61 games.
“Chucky (Galchenyuk) is a huge part of this team and he knows that, whether he’s going to plug in different situations or be a threat on the power play,” captain Max Pacioretty said. “Things change quickly, especially in this city during the playoffs.
“We’ve all been in situations where we feel great about ourselves and we’ve all been in positions where we’re not. He’s got a great attitude and he came to the rink today ready to work. You know that when the puck drops in Game 1 you’ll see his best.”
Galchenyuk was most recently on the third line with Andrew Shaw and Artturi Lehkonen, one of the team’s most productive down the stretch. Dwight King has moved to left wing on that unit.
The Canadiens use center Phillip Danault on the first line with Pacioretty and Alexander Radulov, with Tomas Plekanec between Paul Byron and Brendan Gallagher on the second.
NOTE: Defenseman Brandon Davidson missed practice with the flu.