MONTREAL – All of the anticipation and hope and belief? All of the dreams about an unlikely trip to the Stanley Cup final? All of the expectant energy that has this city twisted inside out?
All of it is likely gone if Carey Price’s injury is as bad as it looked.
Never mind that Michel Therrien explained his decision to pull the goaltender 40 minutes into the Eastern Conference final on Saturday afternoon by saying it was to “protect him more than anything.” Therrien’s job is to coach the Montreal Canadiens and it is therefore not to offer an honest update on injuries at playoff time.
Here is what we know for sure: The back of Price’s right ankle was slammed into the goal post when Chris Kreider hammered him on a failed rush early in the second period. The New York Rangers forward was travelling at 36.2 kilometres per hour, according to Hockey Night in Canada, and the way Price grabbed at his right leg and knee as he twisted on the ice suggested that he was in considerable discomfort.
For almost 17 minutes, he played through it.
Therrien then removed him from the game during the second intermission – shortly after watching Price surrender goals 49 seconds apart, the second of which saw him barely even move in the direction of a Brad Richards shot. As much as that resulted from a great setup by Mats Zuccarello, the goalie didn’t look right. He didn’t seem comfortable.
The decision to send in Peter Budaj for the third period might not raise alarm bells under normal circumstances, but this is the Eastern Conference final and this is Carey Price and the score was only 4-1. The game was not completely out of reach. Surely, the chances of a Habs comeback were much greater with the Olympic champion performing on the ice rather than sitting at the end of the bench.
Adding to the uncertainty was the fact Price did not speak with reporters following a game that devolved into an embarassing 7-2 loss. That is unusual.
The main reason the opener got so out of hand is because of Brandon Prust’s decision to singlehandedly exact revenge on Kreider in the third period. He cross-checked him multiple times, pitchforked him between the legs and slashed him for good measure. Prust was assessed 14 minutes in penalties and saw the Rangers score twice while he was sitting in the penalty box.
However, the bad blood ended there. Therrien didn’t seem to hold any ill-will towards Kreider when asked about his collision with Price.
"I think it was accidental, honestly," he said. "The fact (Price) didn’t play in the third period was more to protect him than anything because we were not sharp in front of him."
We won’t know for sure if the move was completely precautionary until the Canadiens take to the practice ice on Sunday morning. If, say, Dustin Tokarski is occupying one net while Budaj is in the other concern will spread quickly. And rightfully so. Losing Price would be unfathomable for a team that is dreaming about delivering a long-awaited championship to its devoted fanbase.
"He’s been the backbone of this team, he’s given us a chance to win every night," said captain Brian Gionta. "When he goes down like that, for sure it’s scary. We’ve got some time now and hopefully he’ll be ready."
How quickly the mood of a team – not to mention a hockey-intoxicated city – can change at playoff time. The Habs were riding high after eliminating the Boston Bruins in a thrilling seven-game series earlier this week and then got promptly brought right back down to earth. They landed with a thud.
This was akin to looking in a mirror and not liking what you saw.
Montreal had grown accustomed to dictating the pace and attack in the opening two rounds, but had the tables completely turned in Game 1 here. The Rangers were fast and aggressive. They were organized and patient. They scored off the rush, off the cycle, on a breakaway and with the man advantage.
"We got our asses kicked all over the ice," said Habs winger Rene Bourque. "There’s really no other way to explain it."
Therrien went even further than that. He was disgusted with the effort.
"We weren’t ready mentally or physically to play that game," he said. "I think it was obvious right from the start."
They expected much, much more. Coming home to a province where hopes are "off the charts," according to general manager Marc Bergevin, this was an opportunity to plant some serious doubt into the minds of their opponent.
Henrik Lundqvist has traditionally struggled in this building and the Rangers only recently ended an eight-game losing streak in Montreal and the New Yorkers are fresh off a pair of tough seven-game series. On top of all of that, the entire team is due to attend Sunday’s funeral service for France St. Louis – the mother of winger Martin St. Louis – who died suddenly of a heart attack on May 8.
It was no small feat to deliver such a strong performance under those circumstances. In doing so, the Rangers made a pretty strong statement about how challenging this series should be.
"We have a tough team playing over there and that’s the message that we’ve been telling our players," Bergevin had said before puck drop. "I don’t want to go ahead of ourselves. Where we are today, we’re only halfway there (to the Stanley Cup).
"So these guys are standing in our way, and we’ll do our best to move on."
The job will get considerably tougher if Price can't suit up for Game 2 on Monday night. There’s certainly no guarantee that he'll be ready.