They were two innocuous incidents, and neither of them would’ve garnered much attention in any other regular season game.
But that’s just the thing. It wasn’t just another regular season game; it was a meaningless one between a Buffalo Sabres team playing out the string of another lost season and a Montreal Canadiens team with nothing left to play for after clinching the Atlantic Division with a win over the Florida Panthers on Monday.
So when Habs goaltender Carey Price was shaking off the sting of a first-period collision with Buffalo’s Sam Reinhart, and when he doubled over after taking a shot in the arm from Sabres forward Evander Kane in the second, those events made you wonder what he was doing in the net to begin with.
It’s no secret that Price holds the key to a long run through the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the Canadiens this spring. Why risk him getting hurt in any one of Montreal’s three remaining regular season games—all of them featuring opponents that are outside of the playoff picture—with the post-season set to begin in one week’s time?
"Our goaltender wants to stay sharp and he doesn’t want to sit out for too, too long," said Canadiens coach Claude Julien after the 2-1 loss in Buffalo. "Depending on when the playoffs start—whether it’s Wednesday or Thursday night, I have no idea—I don’t know that he wants to sit out for the whole week."
Considering that knee injuries limited Price to just 12 games last season—and considering the gargantuan task he faced this year—there just didn’t seem to be much value in watching him turn aside 28 pucks on Wednesday.
The 29-year-old moved up his summer training to prepare for September’s World Cup of Hockey—where he went the distance with Team Canada as their starter. He then joined the Canadiens and raced with them through the most demanding part of their condensed schedule before having to take an unscheduled trip to Los Angeles to appear in this year’s All-Star Weekend.
Price had admitted near the halfway point of the season that fatigue was creeping in. It became undeniable as his play gradually slipped in December and practically fell off a cliff through the end of January and over the first two weeks of February.
It was after the Canadiens took their bye week from Feb. 13-17 that the value of rest for Price became a known commodity. As he came back rejuvenated and posted a 13-4-0 record and a scorching .941 save percentage over his next 17 starts, the proof was indisputable.
With Price making it out of last Saturday’s 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning unscathed, and with third-stringer Charlie Lindgren helping the Canadiens secure the division by making 31 stops in the 4-1 win over Florida on Monday, you might have thought Julien would take the decision out of his goaltender’s hands.
But there Price was on Wednesday, turning aside breakaways from Ryan O’Reilly, Tyler Ennis and Nicolas Deslauriers, and there he was narrowly escaping the collision with Ennis and the wicked shot from Kane—thankfully unscathed.
If there was plenty of action around Price’s net, it might have had something to do with O’Reilly’s comments earlier in the day, telling a crowd of reporters that he was "sick of losing."
He added that "being a leader, a lot of it falls on me, but to do it two years in a row like this and not go anywhere and not get any better—it’s pathetic.”
And the last thing O’Reilly said was that the Sabres had three games remaining and that they had to use them to prove something to themselves. With Wednesday’s game being Buffalo’s last at home, the Canadiens had a sense for what was coming.
"They’re all trying to play for their jobs, they’re all trying to play for pride at this time of the year, they’re not throwing the towel in," said Julien. "So we knew they were going to be playing hard, and they did a good job of driving the net."
The Lightning will have a similar plan on Friday, when they take on the Canadiens at the Bell Centre.
You can’t expect the Detroit Red Wings to hold back on Saturday, in the last game to be played at Joe Louis Arena between the two Original Six franchises.
The Canadiens have nothing to gain and much to lose in both contests.
Such was the case on Wednesday when defenceman Alexei Emelin left the game with a lower-body injury in the third period and did not return.
"Unfortunately injuries are part of the game and those are things sometimes that you can’t really control," said Julien. "We’re going to try and manage it the best we can."
That means resting 38-year-old defenceman Andrei Markov might be a consideration. Surely the coach has considered that it couldn’t hurt to park Canadiens leading forwards Max Pacioretty and Alexander Radulov. And maybe 34-year-old defensive specialist Tomas Plekanec could use a breather, too.
Heck, any move of that nature will be understood at this juncture.
Not taking liability out of the equation by sitting Price for the remainder of the regular season would be a bigger head-scratcher.