This was, in every meaningful way, inevitable.
As fundamental a fact of life as April showers and rude bus drivers, fans of the Montreal Canadiens will, at some point in the season, break out the spit on which goaltenders are roasted over an angry flame.
This town has booed everyone from Georges Vézina to Patrick Roy; now it is booing Carey Price.
It’s not the first time, and he’s a big boy – though Price didn’t speak to the media after practice Tuesday, he did appear in the team’s dressing room, sporting an expression that those who work in and around the team have seen before: extreme irritation.
Directed inwardly, one suspects.
As Price’s teammates will tell you, no could heap more pressure on Carey Price than he does on himself.
It’s true the Habs’ franchise goalie hasn’t been up to the task over the last little while.
People point at the three goals in four shots against Toronto on Saturday, or two in five against Philadelphia on Monday (he has given up nine goals on his last 33 shots in just over 50 minutes of game action).
But the recent dip in his play goes back further – he has lost three starts in a row and dropped three of the previous seven – and in any case, it’s as much a symptom as it is a cause.
Ripping the goalie in Montreal, which fans and pundits have been doing with gusto on talk radio and Internet forums, can be seen as a kind of shorthand.
In this case he’s the sin-eater for the rest of the team, which, let’s face it, hasn’t been all that good in the past two weeks.
They’re .500 in the month of April, and have lost three of four, including both games since a playoff spot was salted away last week in Buffalo.
Injuries have played a part (the defence looks a lot worse without Alexei Emelin, who is out for the year with a knee injury and whose play had been declining along with the team’s).
But mostly they’ve just been inconsistent, whether defensively, offensively, mentally.
“At the beginning of the season, we were a team that could create surprises. Nobody believed in us much, so we could surprise people. We were fighting with desperation every time we stepped on the ice,” coach Michel Therrien said. “Since we clinched a playoff spot, we haven’t hit that same level.”
The fans issued a reminder on Monday that they have noticed, too; boos began raining down during a second-period power-play, and as the frame ended.
Cool-headed observers will note that, despite the abject performance of the past two games, the Habs still sit in second place in the conference. But passion usually thwarts reason when it comes to the Canadiens.
“It’s natural here, you get used to it. That’s what makes Montreal, Montreal. If you have a bad game you’re questioned, and if you have a great game, you can get over-pumped,” said captain Brian Gionta. “You come back with a good performance [Wednesday] night and you’re back on course.”
Gionta pointed out the team has six games left to get their wagon back on the rails, and that it’s plenty of time to correct their recent sloppiness.
Therrien may have upped the ante slightly in declaring that Price’s backup, Peter Budaj, will start in Pittsburgh on Wednesday against the conference-leading Penguins.
He explained the decision saying the team has two strong goalies, and “we’re going to give [Price] the time to rebound, to recover his confidence.”
Another justification: the last time Budaj played the first leg of a back-to-back and Price played the second, the Habs won both games.
Presumably Price will be in net Thursday at home against 13th-placed Tampa Bay. If so, he should stand a decent chance of getting back in the win column.
Montreal is 6-1-1 in the second of back-to-back games.
There’s also a risk, however.
If Budaj were to stand on his head in Pittsburgh, it will only add oxygen to the bonfires lit by Price detractors.
Therrien’s preoccupation is doubtless on obtaining immediate results, and in that he faces the weight of recent history.
The Habs simply haven’t been very good closers.
They went 8-1-1 over their final 10 games in 2007-08, en route to a regular-season conference championship in Price’s rookie year, and lost in the second round to Philly.
In the seasons since then, they’ve gone a combined 16-14-10 in the final 10 games of the schedule. Fans should also bear in mind that Price had a string of six losses in eight starts (including four straight) in late April of 2011, won his last three, then played brilliantly against eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston, logging a .934 save percentage in a first-round series the Habs lost in overtime of game seven.
Therrien suggested on Tuesday that the current rough patch will only make his team stronger, and it’s clear it will allow him to tinker with his lineup – defenceman Yannick Weber could see his first action since Mar. 7.
“Every team in every season has to deal with adversity. And there’s nothing bad about dealing with adversity, honestly … we’re dealing with that right now, and it’s not because of the two losses, it’s because of the way we’re losing. I believe that adversity, if you react the right way, will make you progress as a team,” he said.
The Canadiens have lost three in a row just once this season.
If they repeat that by laying an egg in Pittsburgh, they’ll have all the adversity they can handle.
The Boston Bruins are only one point back, and the cushion over the surging Toronto Maple Leafs is only four.