BROSSARD, Que. — Carey Price is hurt. Again.
It’s a lower-body injury. Again.
How much time will he miss? Nobody knows yet.
Of all the things Montreal Canadiens fans would never like to hear again, this tops the list. They were tormented when Price missed 70 games of the 2015-16 season with a knee injury that was supposed to only cost him roughly six weeks, and you can imagine their reaction to Thursday’s Twitter update — sent from the team’s official account at 1:03 p.m. ET and containing no specific details on the injury, nor any on the expected timeline for recovery.
A total gut-punch. And then there’s the immediate ramification to consider: That the timing of Price’s injury couldn’t be worse.
Obviously, it’s never a good time to lose your most important player, but it’s a particularly bad time for the Canadiens to lose Price while they’re clinging to the second wild-card position in the Eastern Conference and about to embark on what could be considered the toughest portion of their schedule.
They have 13 games to play over the next 23 days. Seven of them will be on the road, six will be played back-to-back, five of them will be against divisional rivals, and all but two of them will be played against teams that are either currently holding a playoff spot or teams that are very much still in the hunt for one.
“It’s during this time that we have to be smart about calculating practice time and balancing rest,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien after the team practised on Thursday. “It’s a difficult schedule. It wasn’t an easy November or December, either, but we pulled out some wins and we’re going to try to do the same in January.”
The team will have to hope they have Price at their disposal to help them with some of that.
He practised with the Canadiens on Thursday but left the ice a little ahead of schedule. He appeared agitated at one point but continued on with drills before skating off. And then the team left for the airport ahead of three games to be played in four nights — against the Florida Panthers on Friday, the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday, and the Dallas Stars on Monday — and he did not leave with them.
Losing Price right as his game is appearing sharper than it’s been in well over a calendar year only adds insult to injury for Montreal. You could see him flourishing with each passing December day, en route to establishing the best numbers he’s posted in a month in which he’s made at least eight appearances since March of 2017.
And while Price’s record of 8-3 and his .916 save percentage and a 2.42 goals-against average in 12 games over the last 28 days impressed, the statistics don’t quite tell the full story. Beyond them, the 31-year-old, who’s in Year 1 of an eight-year, $84-million contract, has been coming up with big saves at key moments, shutting down high-danger scoring chances with regularity, and inflating the confidence of his teammates while exuding his own.
“It’s pretty easy to play when you know the Great Wall of China is standing behind us,” said 18-year-old rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi on Thursday. “We can trust him all the time, so it’s pretty easy to play in front of him.”
It’s certainly appeared that way for the Canadiens for most of this season, over which they’ve been in a playoff spot for all but a few days and established the NHL’s 13th-best record.
Now the stakes are rising, the games are getting tighter, the schedule is becoming more demanding, and the team must turn to backup Antti Niemi, who’s 4-3-1, and has an .876 save percentage and a 4.14 goals-against average this year.
Michael McNiven will also be recalled to the Canadiens from their AHL affiliate, the Laval Rocket, because starter Charlie Lindgren is also unavailable due to injury.
Even if Niemi returns to the form that saw him post a .929 save percentage in 19 appearances with the Canadiens last season, and even if McNiven somehow goes from posting an .884 save percentage in 12 appearances with Laval to putting up similar numbers to the ones Price had with the Canadiens in December, you have to wonder how sustainable that would be.
Thinking about it stirs up a familiar feeling for Montreal fans, who have been forced to ponder situations like this far more frequently than they’d have liked to since Price appeared in a career-high 72 games over the 2010-11 season.
There was the groin injury that cut Price’s 2013 first-round playoff series against the Ottawa Senators short, the knee injury suffered in a collision with New York Rangers forward Chris Kreider in Game 1 of the 2014 Eastern Conference Final, the MCL sprain that derailed his 2015-16 season, the fatigue he suffered in November of 2017, the concussion sustained towards the end of last season, and there were all the little bumps and bruises and minor injuries in between.
Another one for Price — coming on some innocuous play in practice that went largely unnoticed by the people in attendance (yours truly included) — is a tough pill to swallow for the patrons of the team. Not knowing anything else about it for what could be days will only induce panic amongst them.