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Montreal Canadiens goalie Peter Budaj makes a save on Boston Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron, right, during the first period of an NHL game at the Bell Centre in Montreal on March 12, 2014. (Eric Bolte/USA Today Sports)
Montreal Canadiens goalie Peter Budaj makes a save on Boston Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron, right, during the first period of an NHL game at the Bell Centre in Montreal on March 12, 2014. (Eric Bolte/USA Today Sports)

Canadiens stagger on without Carey Price Add to ...

One of the eternal questions in pro soccer, where players pull on national team jerseys several times per season, involves priorities: club before country or the other way around?

It’s not something hockey fans typically worry much about, given players’ international obligations typically rear their head only when the season is over for non-playoff teams (world championships) or every fourth year (Winter Olympics).

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These days, it is a question being asked with a great deal of urgency by the Montreal Canadiens and their fans.

Since goaltender Carey Price left his first post-Olympic practice after feeling a twinge in his right leg – reaggravating a long-standing injury he reportedly tweaked at the Sochi Games – the Habs have gone 3-4-1.

Sounds decent, until you consider all the wins have come either in overtime or the shootout and all the losses have come in the past five games (including three in a row).

More importantly, Price’s deputy, Peter Budaj, has been, um, less than stellar in relief.

It’s a team game, and thus hardly fair to single out one player’s performance, except in the very recent past: Budaj has given up bad goals that stopped his club in its tracks.

The prototypical example: In San Jose last week, he muffed a routine shoot-in allowing the Sharks to score a cheap short-handed goal, negating a strong start. The veteran Slovak has an .868 save percentage in his seven starts since the Olympics. (Dustin Tokarski made the Habs’ other start, winning a shootout in Anaheim.)

It only underscores the importance of Price to his team: With him in the lineup, they can play poorly and still win; without him, they can play well and lose.

It’s axiomatic for those who have been paying attention to such things that the Habs, as a club, fell off a cliff in terms of possession statistics – which tend to correlate well to winning – at the end of last November, getting consistently outshot and outchanced by opponents.

Since then, they’ve been playing the type of hockey usually associated with clubs that will be in the draft lottery come June (that the Habs and the Toronto Maple Leafs, another poor possession team propped up by great goaltending, are still in the fight for home playoff seeds confounds the advanced-stat geeks).

A 7-1-1 run in games prior to the Sochi Olympics stopped the rot, and in a sense the Habs have come out of the break playing much better possession hockey – crisper breakouts, not quite as much dumping and chasing, more zone time spent cycling in the opponents’ end.

Wednesday, they bossed the Boston Bruins around for the first period, and indeed much of the third, but lost the game on the strength of two quick second-period goals because of errors from rookie defenceman Jarred Tinordi (Andrei Markov and Brian Gionta also deserve goat horns for their roles on the second) and a back-breaking late third goal by Milan Lucic that squirmed through Budaj’s legs.

Budaj’s teammates could have helped by converting on a series of gilt-edged chances – including three breakaways – but the Habs don’t score much 5-on-5 (29th in the league), and the implicit bargain is their goaltending has to be above-average for them to have success.

It will help that head coach Michel Therrien has tried recently acquired winger Thomas Vanek on the top scoring line with Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais. Though the Austrian hasn’t yet scored a goal for his new club, he’s been creating chances by the bushel and driving possession when he’s on the ice.

According to extraskater.com, when Vanek was on the ice against the Bruins, the Habs generated 72.4 per cent of the even-strength shots, blocked shots and shot attempts (that’s about 23.1-per-cent better than when he wasn’t on the ice). In his three games in a Habs uniform, Vanek has been at or near the top in terms of possession metrics.

Over all, the Habs have seen more of the puck in five of their past eight games than the opposition – still not exactly like the San Jose Sharks or L.A. Kings, but not bad.

That this team could roll with the Bruins despite having 38-year-old Francis Bouillon alongside P.K. Subban on the blueline all night and a bottom pair of Douglas Murray (who has the worst possession statistics of any regular defenceman in the NHL) and Tinordi bodes well for the coming stretch of games.

Assuming they can get a save.

A great deal of mystery surrounds Price’s injury – it’s been reported as a knee problem, but he has also copped to hurting a groin muscle earlier this year – but Therrien says he’s making progress.

Until a couple of days ago, it seemed eminently reasonable for Montreal to err on the side of caution with its gold-medal goalie, but a seven-point gap over eighth place in the East is now down to four.

The statistical-modelling website sportsclubstats.com estimates the Habs’ chances of making the playoffs at 85.9 per cent.

But with a stretch run that includes games against Colorado, Detroit (twice), Tampa Bay, New York Rangers, Boston and the Leafs – to say nothing of a pair of banana-peel potential dates with the Buffalo Sabres – it will go a long way to easing nerves in the Bell Centre if Price, injured for his country and prevented so far for playing for his club, can get back in the net.

Follow on Twitter: @MrSeanGordon

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