MONTREAL — It’s fair to say Monday’s showing at the Bell Centre didn’t provide the type of evidence you’d want in order to support an argument that the Montreal Canadiens can survive without Carey Price.
Thankfully for them, it was a one-off. An ugly duckling of a game played against a Toronto Maple Leafs side that barely met NHL pre-season requirements for veterans dressed.
Even more thankfully for them, they don’t have to ponder what life will be like without Price. The 32-year-old star netminder was slated to start Monday’s game but was kept out as a precautionary measure after team doctors diagnosed him with a hand contusion and recommended he stay off the ice for a few days.
Fortunately for Price, who’s expected to return to play before the end of the week, he wasn’t forced to play with this Canadiens team in front of him. With Charlie Lindgren in net, they lost 3-0. They were outplayed for large portions of the game—and in every zone—and afterwards Canadiens coach Claude Julien referred to it as a sobering reminder of how the team needs to play to be successful.
“We didn’t play a good game tonight,” he said. “We didn’t skate well. When we skate well, things tend to work out. We didn’t skate well enough or compete well enough. Our backchecking wasn’t strong enough, our transition wasn’t good, either. We weren’t coming back fast. We played a mostly AHL lineup on the other side, 20 players who are hungry, who worked hard all game and gave us problems. If we had guys who thought it would be an easy game, they didn’t prepare well and it’s a good lesson for everyone. You can’t prepare yourself after two periods, it’s too late. So tonight wasn’t a good game, and a loss sometimes brings everyone down to Earth and I hope that will be the case.”
The timing of such a loss isn’t necessarily a bad thing. With two games remaining in the pre-season, and nine days to go before they begin the regular season in Carolina, the Canadiens have enough road in front of them to patch things up and get back to the game that allowed them to win their first four exhibition matches. You know, the game mostly responsible for netting them 96 points last season.
It was a style of game that saw the Canadiens score the fifth-most goals in the league at 5-on-5, a suffocating skating game that depended on quick transition, a game that didn’t force Price to work miracles every time he took to the net.
“I thought we did a better job defensively—closing quick, spending a lot less time in our end,” said Canadiens defenceman Jeff Petry to describe it. “I thought the big difference was taking those Grade-A slot opportunities away with everyone collapsing low. It seemed like in years past, teams would have the puck behind the goal-line and find the guy in the quiet area for a one-timer, which is always tough for a goaltender to stop. Price erases more of those than most guys, but we were able to limit them much more than in years past.”
On Monday, it was a free-for-all in front of Lindgren. Granted, the Leafs were limited to just 25 shots on net, but they were gifted enough quality chances to skate away with a much more convincing win than the one they registered.
So, when the Canadiens get back on Wednesday, ahead of a game against the real Leafs in Toronto, and without Price at their disposal, they had better get back to what they do best.
What does that entail?
“I think it’s just the relentless forecheck and backcheck,” said Nate Thompson after his 21 shifts in Monday’s game. “I think just the way we play, it’s a fast game, but it’s a fast game because we’re on pucks going forward and going back. And whenever you do that, it makes it hard for the other team to make plays.”
It’s a game that requires a full effort from everyone, which is something they haven’t gotten from their best players to this point in training camp.
That was understandable over the first week and change, with young players and bubble players fighting to prove their worth and there not being much at stake for veterans who have their spots secured. But now it’s time to prepare for the season.
“Every game you want to build,” said Jonathan Drouin before skating a team-low 11:57 on Monday. “I haven’t had the two greatest games, but it’s pre-season. You want to build, you want to get better.”
He needs to be much better than he’s shown through his three games so far. So does linemate Max Domi, so does sophomore Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and so do a number of other players who have had ordinary outings through exhibition.
They’d be wise to treat Monday’s game as a wake-up call.