The Lightning come to Montreal fighting to keep their playoff hopes alive, on the heels of a 4-1 win over the Leafs Thursday that put the team just three points behind Toronto with two games remaining in the regular season.
Tampa must beat the Canadiens and Buffalo Sabres on Sunday – and even if they do, their place in the playoffs will only be confirmed if the Leafs fail to register a point in their remaining games against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets, and if the New York Islanders collect three points or less in their games against the New Jersey Devils and Ottawa Senators.
It appears as though the Lightning will have to continue its quest without captain Steven Stamkos, who skated Friday morning in Montreal but did not meet with media to discuss his potential availability for the game.
Stamkos, who missed all but 17 games with a knee injury this season, told reporters in Toronto this week that it’s doubtful he’ll be able to return before the playoffs.
Lightning forward Tyler Johnson, who’s played in just two games since Mar. 10, will be a game-time decision but is also unlikely to play.
As for the Canadiens, who clinched a playoff berth last week and secured home-ice advantage through the first two rounds of the playoffs by clinching the Atlantic Division with a 4-1 win over the Florida Panthers on Monday, the only thing at stake is the health of their players.
Concern about the risk of injury didn’t win out over Price’s desire to avoid too long of a layoff before Montreal’s first-round series against the New York Rangers begins next Wednesday.
“If he doesn’t play tonight, there’s a whole week without playing,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien on Friday morning. “A goaltender who feels good about his game probably doesn’t want to sit out that long.”
Price, who made 28 saves in a 2-1 loss to the Sabres Wednesday and has 13 wins and a .942 save percentage in 18 starts since the Canadiens had their bye week from Feb. 13-17, represents Montreal’s best chance of eliminating the Lightning from the playoff race.
The 6-foot-3 goaltender will have his work cut out for him, especially with three of Montreal’s top-six defencemen sidelined by injury.
Julien confirmed that defenceman Alexei Emelin will miss the remainder of the regular season and be evaluated next week after suffering a lower-body injury in the loss to Buffalo. He also said that defencemen Shea Weber (lower-body) and Jordie Benn (upper-body) would both be ready to play as of Game 1 against the Rangers and added that while Weber would miss the remaining regular-season games, Benn could suit up for Saturday’s game against the Detroit Red Wings.
As for Price, who is 37-19-5 this season, Friday’s game will definitely be his last before the playoffs.
According to Julien, the plan is to keep Price – and possibly a few other players – from traveling to Detroit on Saturday.
Regarding Julien’s decision to dress price on Friday, he was asked about how he would justify it if the goaltender were to suffer an injury in a meaningless game.
“I don’t have to, that’s part of the game,” Julien said. “We can play it safe, ultra-safe… but you have to make those tough decisions sometimes. It’s not easy, and we’ll always look at hindsight, right? But if everything goes well tonight, he plays well, and we win the game and he’s good, then the plan goes as [intended].”