To say the Montreal Canadiens will be fine without Carey Price – their superstar goalie and MVP, lost for at least the rest of the Eastern Conference Final after an unspecified leg injury suffered in Game 1 Saturday – is to say the famous illusionists Penn & Teller could survive without Penn (a.k.a. the only speaking member of the duo). Technically, and for the short term, it’s true: optimists can point to the immediate past and project the sense Teller and his replacement can replicate the magic, but the reality is the act is going to have to change for it to have any chance at success.
The same holds true with the Price-less Habs. They can still win, but no longer can their defense be bailed out by Price on a nightly, if not shiftly basis. No longer can they play with quite as much confidence on offense now that Price isn’t at the back of their minds, cooly assuring them he’ll be there to snuff out a 2-on-1 after a bad pinch or a blocked shot from the point that turns into a breakaway.
The finality of the news sent waves of nausea through the province of Quebec, so you can imagine how Montreal’s players feel. They’ll put on a brave face for the cameras – that’s what they’re expected to do and what they expect of themselves – but they also know neither of the options head coach Michel Therrien has to step in as the No. 1 netminder have established themselves as capable of doing what Price did right up until Rangers forward Chris Kreider barrelled into him in the second period of Game 1.
No matter whether it’s veteran backup Peter Budaj (who played the third period of Game 1 and surrendered three goals on eight shots) or 24-year-old American Leaguer Dustin Tokarski (who has all of 10 games of NHL experience) between the pipes, Therrien will have to shift the team’s focus from this point on if he plans on making the Stanley Cup Final. They’ve already lost home ice advantage in the series, and all it could take to create a runaway snowball of Rangers confidence to run them over is a few sloppy plays in Montreal’s own zone Monday night.
With Blueshirts star Henrik Lundqvist looking spectacular, and with veterans Martin St-Louis and Brad Richards capitalizing on many of their chances, the visitors will be sniffing hard for blood, so expect Therrien to push a slower, safer approach to Game 2. Of course, it’s also on the players to adjust in Price’s absence. For instance, the freewheeling of P.K. Subban must be reined in to a certain degree. Their penalty kill – already the worst of any conference finalist at just 75 percent – will need to be much better in a hurry. And although they’ve got the playoffs’ top offense at an average of 3.17 goals-for per game, they’ll likely have to grind out wins by scoring just once or twice a night and minimizing their mistakes.
The best teams in the playoffs make adjustments in every round and it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility the Canadiens can still make a series of it. But this is different. This is going to require an abrupt and acute change in the way Montreal wins games.
For all the magic Price showcased throughout the regular season and playoffs, it will take an even bigger trick to win without him now.