So what now for the Montreal Canadiens?
Olympic champion goalie Carey Price is out of the Eastern Conference final against the New York Rangers through injury, the Habs’ chances of advancing have been written off by many fans and huge swaths of the punditocracy, and now the spotlight shifts to one of two unproven backups.
The only worse thing that could have happened to the Habs – actually, never mind there’s nothing worse.
Regular backup Peter Budaj has has a 4-1 career record against the Rangers but never won a playoff start (0-2, with an .843 save percentage), while third-stringer Dustin Tokarski has never played an NHL playoff game.
Tokarski does have a strong post-season track record in the minors (he won the Calder Cup in 2012), in junior hockey (where he won the Memorial Cup in 2008 and the World Junior Championship in 2009), and minor hockey (the Telus Cup), so if head coach Michel Therrien is in the mood for bold gestures, he could go with the 24-year-old Saskatchewan native.
At this stage, there’s nothing to lose by gambling, game two (8 p.m., CBC, RDS) will reveal whether Therrien, a self-described poker enthusiast, is in the mood to shove all his chips to the middle of the table.
He played coy on Monday morning when asked about his choice of netminders, saying that he had reached a decision and that no, he wouldn’t be sharing it.
Social media websites were abuzz Monday afternoon with talk that Tokarski would indeed get the start, but no official confirmation was forthcoming. It wasn't until he led the Canadiens onto the ice for the pre-game warmup that the news was confirmed.
A miffed Therrien said of the game one sequence where Price was injured by a falling Chris Kreider “it’s a reckless play, that’s the truth.”
The 23-year-old Kreider, for his part, wasn’t exactly repentant or contrite on Monday.
Asked by reporters at the Bell Centre whether he would have done anything differently, his answer was: “I look back on it and think I wish I would’ve put it in the net. Obviously I was trying to score a goal. I put it wide. It was a bang-bang play.”
Players running over goaltenders is a fact of life in hockey and in today’s NHL – in fact Kreider did it in the Rangers’ last series, and Price was knocked down several times against Boston – but try explaining that to a team whose ambitions for an appearance in the Stanley Cup final were riding primarily on their netminder.
“Kreider, this is not the first time he’s going at goalies. So, we end up losing our best player, but our group faced a lot of adversity through the course of the season and had the attitude to respond really well. This is what I’m expecting starting tonight,” Therrien said.
In fact, he said the team now owes it to Price to extend their playoff run – should they progress to the Stanley Cup final, it’s at least theoretically possible that Price will be well enough to play (the exact nature of his right leg injury has not been revealed).
“I know our team has a lot of character,” he said.
But there’s a difference between adversity and the crippling loss of your top player at the worst possible time.
The Rangers have lost 12 straight playoff games after taking the lead in a series, it might be worth making a prop bet on that string ending on Monday; speaking of which, the oddsmakers reported heavy betting action on New York in light of the news.
It’s natural to think that the Habs may seek some retribution for Kreider’s feet-first slide into Price – it couldn’t have been intentional, but hockey players who fly into the goalie rarely have qualms about whatever results from the collision – but Therrien said the focus will be on winning, not revenge.
“We know what happened with Kreider, we know his history, we know a lot of things. But our main focus is to make sure we play a solid game. Make sure we play hard, we play with passion, that we be disciplined, [that we] play the way we are capable of playing,” he said.
The Rangers also said they’re intent on playing hockey, and focused firmly on building a 2-0 series lead as the scene switches to New York later this week.
Nor does Kreider expect any special treatment.
“I’m here to play my game and play hard and I think I’m a clean player. I don’t go out with the intent to hurt anyone ever, so I’m going to continue to try and get to the net and score goals,” he said.