BROSSARD, Que. – The mood was quiet, more than defiant, on Tuesday as the Montreal Canadiens prepared for what could be their final game of the 2009 playoffs.
Nine players took part in an optional skate at their suburban practice facility, with the rest either getting treatment or rest ahead of a do-or-die Game 4 of their NHL Eastern Conference playoff series with the Boston Bruins.
Boston leads the best-of-seven series 3-0, outscoring Montreal 13-5 in the process, and looks ready for a sweep.
“We have to prove we can stay alive by winning a game,” coach and general manager Bob Gainey said. “And if we win a game, then we play a game on Saturday.
“It’s by small increments. We needed to win a game to get into the series, whether it’s the first, second, third or fourth. Right now, we’re sitting on the fourth, still waiting to get out of the gate. There’s always a vein of optimism. There’s always some hope, and until that’s gone, that’s what you play with. That’s what you rely on.”
Their best hope would be for top defenceman Andrei Markov to return, but he looked to be still favouring the right knee he injured when checked into the boards by Toronto’s Mikhail Grabovski late in the regular season.
The Canadiens have not won a game since he was injured, and on Tuesday he did not look ready to play.
Centre Robert Lang, who severed his Achilles tendon in early February, looked fitter as he skated with Markov just before the main practice.
Gainey gave no word on which players would be in the lineup.
Just before Game 3, a 4-2 Boston victory, it was announced that first-line left winger Alex Tanguay and veteran defenceman Mathieu Schneider would sit out with upper body injuries. Gainey did not rule out either or both of them returning.
Francis Bouillon tried to return from a torn groin in Game 3, only to aggravate the injury after only four short shifts. And fellow defenceman Patrice Brisebois has also missed the last two games with an undisclosed injury.
Even with a full complement of players, the eighth-place Canadiens would be in tough against the top-seeded Bruins, but with key players hurting, it has been no contest thus far.
The Bruins have used their size, skill and confidence to control most of the play and allow Montreal few clean scoring chances on Tim Thomas, a Vezina Trophy candidate who has allowed 1.67 goals per game and has a .940 save percentage in the series.
Montreal’s Carey Price, who is expected to start a fourth straight game, has a weak 4.15 average and an .882 save percentage.
Some felt Jaroslav Halak, who stopped all five shots he faced when Price was pulled for the third period of Game 2, would start on Monday.
“Carey played a very good game (Wednesday),” said Gainey. “Maybe if Jaro had played he would have done the same, we don’t know.
“But Carey has played more in the last week to 10 days than Halak and I believe he’s the person who is in the control position in goal.”
The Canadiens, whipped up by the 21,273 roaring Bell Centre fans, gave their best in the first period Monday and got the lead for the first time in the series when Chris Higgins scored at 11:52.
But Boston still found a way to tie it as Dennis Wideman intercepted a pass at the blueline, threw the puck toward the net and saw it go in off Phil Kessel.
After Montreal spent its energy in the first half of the game, the Bruins took over and shut them down.
“We did a good job of controlling our emotions,” said Boston forward Marc Savard. “In the first period, they were coming hard in the first 10 minutes and we didn’t react at all.
“We didn’t take any penalties. We stayed with it. Timmy (Thomas) made some big saves, Kessel gets that goal with two minutes left in the period and that was huge for us. We refocused and had good second and third periods.”
The Bruins were without big winger Milan Lucic, a constant physical presence whenever he plays Montreal. Lucic served a one-game suspension for cross-checking Maximi Lapierre in Game 2 and will be back on Wednesday night.
“It was tough sitting out,” the 20-year-old Lucic said. “There was sweat, nerves, all those types of things, but I was happy with the final result.”
His spot was taken by rookie Byron Bitz, who set up linemate Shawn Thornton for a second-period goal with some good work behind the Montreal net against rookie defenceman Yannick Weber.
He impressed coach Claude Julien, but he would not say whether it was Bitz who would be back out of the lineup with Lucic’s return. But he said “someone who deserves to play will sit out.”
The Bruins held a short but spirited practice at the Bell Centre and later spoke of not letting up, and preparing for the Canadiens to throw their best at them again.
The question is whether the Canadiens have much left to throw.
Their 100th anniversary season, which started with high expectations and strong first half of the season, started to go downhill after the all-star game in Montreal on Jan. 25.
Since then, there has been a succession of injuries, a report that some players had hung out with a suspected gang member, star winger Alex Kovalev being sent home for two games to get his mind focused on hockey, and the firing in early march of coach Guy Carbonneau and his replacement behind the bench by Gainey.
On top of that, owner George Gillett has all or part of the club up for sale.
That is only part of the uncertainty that awaits once their playoffs are done.
Many wonder if Gainey will be back next season, and there are 10 unrestricted free agents to be dealt with, including Kovalev, Lang, captain Saku Koivu and defenceman Mike Komisarek.
That may be motivation enough to try to keep it all going as long as possible.
“It’s been an interesting and sometimes tough year for us,” said Koivu. “We’ve had adversity and fought back.
“We made it to the playoffs, so now is not the time to quit. I can’t guarantee the outcome, but I will guarantee the effort.”