“We have to find a way to win without Carey Price,” said Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin when he met with the media following the team’s 17th loss in its last 21 games.
The comment was echoed by Canadiens coach Michel Therrien on Friday.
The message was aimed at all 22 members of the Canadiens but it may as well have been pointed directly at 25-year-old rookie goaltender Mike Condon, who’s been tasked with replacing the reigning Hart and Vezina Trophy-winner.
In his first game since the challenge was issued, Condon delivered a 3-2 shootout win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.
His performance was anything but perfect. It wasn’t Price-like, either.
Not that Condon had much of a chance on the two goals he allowed on the 15 shots he faced in regulation time, but spotting the best goaltender in the world a two-goal lead after a dominant first period likely would’ve taken the tension right out of the game for Montreal.
Toronto’s Nazem Kadri was gifted his ninth goal of the season on a perfect pass from Morgan Rielly, completing a well executed three-on-two rush at top speed. The Canadiens tightened up after that one.
“We came out with a great first period but as soon as we got scored on in the second, we began to look a little bit fragile,” said Canadiens forward David Desharnais in French after the game.
Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul’s game-tying goal, just under five minutes into the third period, was an easy tap-in off a rebound that bounced off Condon’s left pad. There was tension on Montreal’s bench after it went in. Allowing the game’s next goal would’ve had the Canadiens staring down the barrel of a sixth straight loss but that’s when Condon buckled down.
There he was stopping Kadri on the doorstep of his crease with 30 seconds remaining in the third period. There he was shutting the door on four shots during a frenetic overtime period.
Condon, who allowed the first shootout goal against on a perfect forehand-backhand-forehand deke by Peter Holland, stopped three straight Leafs shooters before teammate Lars Eller pushed the winner past an outstretched James Riemer.
If there’s anything we’ve learned about the Holliston, Mass., native over his first 32 NHL games it’s that he’s proven mentally fit enough to put tough breaks behind him.
That was the book on Condon as he stormed out to a 6-0-1 record to start his NHL career, bouncing back from bad goals with big saves. Losses in seven straight starts in December didn't dismantle whatever confidence he had found in the early part of the season.
Grain of salt: Saturday’s win came over a Toronto team that had managed just seven goals in their last five games.
But for a Montreal team that’s been playing against itself for so long, it really didn’t matter who the opponent was.
Condon wasn’t the only Canadien to rise to the occasion after the GM and coach challenged the team.
Eller notched an assist and had a dominant game — as evidenced by his 62 Corsi for percentage — before scoring the shootout winner. Daniel Carr, who was sent down to the AHL after scoring five goals in his first 17 NHL games, settled for an assist on a night where he buzzed around Riemer’s crease on every shift. And the shot attempts were 23-9 when defence partners Nathan Beaulieu and Mark Barberio were on the ice.
Max Pacioretty kept the game alive in the shootout by scoring on Montreal’s third attempt. It looked like all hope was lost when Brian Flynn left a puck on the goal line on the team’s second attempt.
“That was a huge goal by Pacioretty under enormous pressure,” said Therrien in French.
But Pacioretty wouldn’t have had the chance to do it without Condon’s resolve.
The Canadiens don’t have a chance to do what they need to do over the next three-to-four weeks — in Price’s prolonged absence — without Condon’s resolve.
The task is harrowing.
The Canadiens, who were in first place in the Atlantic division on Dec. 1, are currently three points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. They will play back-to-back games against Columbus Monday and Tuesday to close out January’s schedule. They may have to play as many as nine games in February before Price returns.
Condon (13-12-4) doesn’t have to win them all, but he has to give the Canadiens a chance to win in all of them.
Saturday’s game was one for Condon to build on.