Coming into the Eastern Conference Finals, the Montreal Canadiens were hitting a new level of success, playing better hockey than they had all year. An impressive series win over the rival Boston Bruins put them four wins away from playing for the Stanley Cup.
Those dreams, which looked more than achievable a few days ago, just got hit with a gigantic hurdle.
Carey Price, Montreal’s gold medal-winning goalie, is out for the rest of the series against the New York Rangers. He was injured in New York’s Game 1 rout of the Canadiens when Rangers forward Chris Kreider crashed into him while driving the net. Price continued to play until he was pulled after the second period.
Now, after appearing to be more than ready to make a run for the Cup, Montreal has to somehow pull off a series win without arguably their best player. Do they have what it takes to survive such a detrimental injury?
The options the Canadiens have to replace Price are slim pickings. Backup goalie Peter Budaj didn’t exactly give himself a ringing endorsement when he came in for mop-up duty in Game 1, giving up three goals on eight shots. The 31-year-old has minimal playoff experience despite eight years in the NHL, and to be blunt, his postseason stats are hardly reassuring (unless a 5.13 playoff GAA is more calming than it actually looks).
Other than Budaj, Montreal has youngster Dustin Tokarski. He has no postseason experience, with just ten regular season appearances to his name. That said, he started two games for the Canadiens this season, both wins with one shutout.
Coach Michel Therrien says he has his starter picked for Game 2, but has not yet revealed who it’ll be. For the rest of the Montreal players, the worry should be less about who’s starting and more about what they can do to help the cause.
Whoever ends up in net will no doubt be a significant step down from Price. There’s no way around it. In order to compensate, the Canadiens will have to play lights out defense. Time spent in their own zone has to be focused on clogging lanes, forcing bad shooting angles for New York and doing what they can to block as many shots as possible. The team showed a remarkable ability to do such things against the Bruins, so they know it can be done.
The problem is, though, not every shot is going to be blocked or cut off. As strong a defensive effort Montreal puts up tonight, it won’t be enough to prevent pucks on net. Whether it’s Budaj or Tokarski, whoever is protecting the Canadiens’ crease needs to be prepared to stand on his head.
You can argue all you want that Price looked ineffective during Game 1, but there’s no doubt Montreal would rather have him in net as opposed to either of their backups. Budaj and Tokarski combined can’t give the Canadiens the quality of play Price has shown. Unfortunately for Montreal, it’s no longer an option.
The Canadiens need to compensate for this loss by putting forth a monstrous defensive effort, doing everything they can to make life easier for whoever starts from here on out. If they don’t, those dreams of ending their 21 year Cup drought will come crashing down very quickly.