BROSSARD, Que. — When the Montreal Canadiens visit the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday, Carey Price will make a fifth start in eight days, another one on top of all four last week — including the ones he played back to back against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Dallas Stars on Friday and Saturday — and an NHL-leading 51st start this season.
You can bet your mortgage on Shea Weber being in front of Price when the Canadiens take on the Red Wings. Sure, it was in grave doubt the 34-year-old captain of the team would be back this soon after suffering an ankle sprain on Feb. 4, one that was supposed to keep him out of action for four to six weeks, but barring something far more unexpected transpiring between Monday and Tuesday night, Weber will be in uniform.
Jonathan Drouin, who missed Saturday’s 4-3 loss to the Stars with an ankle sprain, will also play. Paul Byron, who had knee surgery on Nov. 18 and hasn’t played since, is expected to be in the lineup. And no one should be surprised if Brendan Gallagher — who missed Monday’s practice after grinding his way through Saturday’s game with a leg injury — dresses.
You can’t blame these players for pushing through the pain, even though the Canadiens’ playoff hopes are all but mathematically dead. You can’t blame their coach, either, whose only focus is to prepare his team for the next game and use everything at his disposal to win it.
“Because if we don’t (approach it that way), what are we doing here?” coach Claude Julien asked following Monday’s practice.
A more pertinent question, though, is what is Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin doing here?
It’s his job to face the reality the players and their coach don’t want to acknowledge. It’s his job to look at the eight-point lead the Toronto Maple Leafs hold in the Atlantic Division race and the nine-point lead the Philadelphia Flyers have in the wild-card race, and weigh it against the fact that his team has just 21 games remaining to catch up.
You know, Bergevin’s team, which hasn’t been able to win more than three games in a row all season; his team that lost all three of its other games against the last-place-in-the-NHL Red Wings in regulation; his team that desperately needed to win at least three of the four games it played last week but only managed to collect one out of eight points available.
How Bergevin can sit back and allow Weber and Gallagher to expose themselves to further injury with the playoffs so far out of reach, with four non-playoff teams ahead of the Canadiens, and time running out is beyond perplexing. Especially given that when we asked Julien and Weber to explain why they believe the Canadiens can pull off the improbable from here to the end of the season, all they could do was pull on something completely intangible as a reason.
“Crazier things have been done before,” said Weber.
“Stranger things have happened,” said Julien before him.
The coach also suggested that the team played well enough to win Saturday and that that could be taken as evidence they can fight their way back into the hunt.
The thing is, they lost. And whether they want to blame the officials for that outcome — and it seems clear Julien does — they surrendered a 3-0 lead and lost for a fourth-straight time.
“If you don’t believe, why waste your time,” Julien asked. “We’ve got to put a bunch of wins together. When I say we’re not stupid, we see where we are. We see how many points we’re behind and we know we’ve go to put an unbelievable streak together and somebody has to falter along the way. We know all that.”
It’s why Weber — who is not even two years removed from ankle surgery on one leg and knee surgery on the other — is going to do what he’s always done.
“I’m not 100 per cent,” he said. “I think everyone knows that. But we’re still in it. Until it’s officially over, everyone’s still in it. It might be a longshot, but there’s still belief in here and I want to be a part of that. I don’t want to sit back and watch.”
The doctors have told Weber he’s unlikely to make his ankle worse playing on it.
“That’s obviously the biggest thing — you don’t want any long-term thing,” said Weber. “Especially with what happened last time (in 2018, when the Canadiens didn’t know the severity of his foot injury and let him play on it for 25 more games before shutting it down and opting for major surgery).
“I think at this point we’re confident that it’s just a listening-to-your-body-type of thing and hopefully it shouldn’t drag on and make anything worse.”
But what happens if Weber does make it worse? What happens if, with Weber’s mobility affected, he’s too slow to recover a puck and gets pasted into the boards and suffers a shoulder injury in Detroit?
Bergevin has gone on and on about how important Weber is to the Canadiens’ present and future. He believes the player will be able to show he can continue to be very effective from here to the end of his contract, which counts for $7.85 million on the salary cap annually and expires in 2026. Why would he expose him to these risks for even one more game, with Montreal holding onto a 1.3 per cent chance of getting the expected 97 points it will require to make the playoffs?
Not that Weber shouldn’t play again this season. But why should he play a full two weeks before the earliest expected return date doctors provided?
“Obviously, there’s timelines put in, but at the same time, I don’t think that … You’ve got to talk to the doctors about that, ‘cause I feel good,” he said.
Is that a good enough reason?
It shouldn’t be for Bergevin.
He shouldn’t allow Gallagher to potentially force himself back into the mix when it was so obvious the injury he suffered early in the first period of Saturday’s game completely limited him for the rest of the night. He should park Drouin, the 24-year-old who has nothing to gain from pushing through this ankle sprain when he’s already playing with a surgically repaired wrist that is clearly paining him and has completely hindered his ability to be effective. He should finally give Price some rest if he wants him to have a real chance of being able to play at the height of his abilities over the remaining six years of his contract after this one.
The upside of making those decisions now should be much higher than assuming all kinds of unnecessary risk to try to bottle lightning.