At the best of times, Canadiens coach Michel Therrien cuts a figure so mournful, he ought to be handed a human skull as he takes the podium.
But this, on Monday, was angst of new depth.
He began his presser by announcing that Carey Price, the most vital link in the Habs chain, will miss the rest of this series. He said it in French. The room got that sort of quiet that freezes people in place.
Perfect stillness – that’s what the death of hope sounds like.
For the remainder of his short remarks, Therrien varied between ashen and brawling.
“I’m not here to talk about players,” Therrien snapped when someone asked about callow replacement Dustin Tokarski. “I’m here to talk about the team.”
That’s the same thing, though it didn’t seem terribly smart from a personal-safety perspective to point that out.
Therrien worked himself into high dudgeon talking about the play that did Price in – a sliding Game 1 rush by Ranger Chris Kreider that folded the goalie’s right leg in under him.
On Saturday, according to various Canadiens, it was “an accident.” On Sunday, it was “accidental on purpose.” By Monday, Therrien moved the goalpost to “reckless.” Give it three more days, and it’ll be a war crime.
This line of thought is, first of all, wrong. Kreider’s got as much right to go the net as Price has to stand in it. If the Habs want to blame someone, they might ask their own Alexei Emelin why he allowed the second-biggest guy on the Rangers to walk around him like his skates were screwed to the ice.
More importantly, painting a bull’s eye on Kreider is counter-productive. It won’t help the Canadiens win this series. In fact, it plays into the same corrosive ‘toughness’ narrative that helped put them in this hole.
Somewhere in the middle of this is Price, a furtive and occasionally tragic figure in Montreal.
He was always the dirtiest thing you can call a player in this town – a regular-season star. His inability to win big games in a big-game town eventually took on a moral character.
People knew Price had the talent. They could see it. But when it mattered, it deserted him. Eventually, fans begin to believe that sort of player lacks something intrinsic – something that looks like a sports soul.
Athletes are intensely poor at expressing what it must feel like to have this mass judgment projected onto them (and the mumbly, po-faced Price is pretty poor at expressing anything in public), but it must be horrible.
Beyond the team and the series, this is the most compelling irony here. In the last three months, stretching back to Sochi, Price had begun to assert himself as the best goalie in the game. Now he’s back to sad, old Carey, the guy who takes his accumulated lieu days in the post-season.
In a way that is impossible to measure, this is in part his own fault.
Price was injured three minutes into the second period. After spending an age down on the ice, he played the remaining seventeen. He was, by definition, reinjuring himself every time he made a hockey move in the crease. By the end, he was visibly stiffening.
A couple of days ago, someone asked Chicago’s Kris Versteeg how hurt he’d have to be to voluntarily pull himself from a playoff game.
“Probably damn near not walking,” Versteeg said.
Try transposing this philosophy to real life. If a tire falls off your car, you don’t attempt to drive it to the garage. Because you will make everything worse. You stop and wait for help.
We all know the players want to see themselves in Spartan terms, but they aren’t being paid to be careless with their health. They’re being paid to win. That should be the ultimate concern.
Once you start thinking about the idea of gutting it out, it makes less and less sense. What good has Price done his team by lying to the trainers? (And we musn’t forget that a lie is what is expected in this case – ‘I’m good to go.’ Nobody ever built a statue of a guy who said, ‘I’m going to exercise some caution here.’)
And what good are trainers if they can’t sniff out these lies? What is their essential purpose if it’s left to the player to gin up his own adrenaline-fuelled, Code-based medical diagnosis?
As Therrien puts it, this isn’t about the players. It’s about the team.
Price didn’t injure himself. Doubtless, he is in far too much pain to play. He’s the victim in this.
But he and the braintrust behind the Canadiens bench are also to blame.
That’s why Michel Therrien was so angry. Because he’s angry with himself.
He ought to be.