BROSSARD, Que. – The Montreal Canadiens are pondering the notion of going without star goalie Carey Price in the NHL Eastern Conference final.
It isn’t pretty.
Coach Michel Therrien admitted Sunday he’s as anxious as the team’s nervous fans to find out how Price will respond to therapy after he was plowed into, skates-first, by New York’s Chris Kreider in the Rangers’ 7-2 romp in the opener of the best-of-seven series on Saturday.
Price tested the suspected right knee injury briefly ahead of an optional practice, but his fitness for Game 2 on Monday night at the Bell Centre remains in doubt.
“We’ll see how he reacts to the therapy and on (Monday) I’ll be in a better position to say if he can play or not,” said Therrien. “Right now I can’t, although I wish I could.”
About an hour ahead of practice at the team’s suburban training centre, Price went on the ice with goaltending coach Stephane Waite for about five minutes, mostly moving side to side in the crease and not taking any shots. Then they left the ice.
If he can’t play, backup Peter Budaj will likely get the call. Third-stringer Dustin Tokarski is also available.
Budaj, who has awful numbers in his limited career playoff experience, replaced Price for the third period in Game 1 and allowed three goals on eight shots, although two of the goals were on the power play, including one on a two-man advantage.
“I’m ready if I have to go but nobody told me anything,” said Budaj. “I don’t know if I’m playing or not. I’ll be ready if I get the chance to play. We’ll see how he feels.”
In seven playoff games, Budaj is 0-2-0 with an .843 save percentage and 5.13 goals-against average.
Price was enjoying a solid post-season and was coming off a pair of wins in which he allowed only one goal as Montreal came back to topple the first-place Boston Bruins in seven games. Then a potential disaster struck in the opener against New York.
The Canadiens were down 2-0 early in the second period when Kreider went in on a breakaway, missed the net with his shot, lost his footing and crashed into Price at high speed. The goaltender laid on the ice for a long moment, but got up and resumed playing.
He didn’t look right, however, as the Rangers scored twice in the final 1:01 of the middle frame. He spent the third period at the end of the bench.
The Canadiens were not happy with the hit, although they stopped short of accusing the six-foot-three 226-pound Kreider of deliberately running into Price. Kreider denied the hit was intentional after the game.
Montreal forward Brandon Prust said Kreider could have at least tried to avoid a feet-first collision and pointed out that the Rangers winger has a history of running into goalies.
Kreider elbowed Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury in the head while crashing the crease in the conference semifinals, and he injured Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson by plowing into him in Dec. 2013.
“Everybody says it’s accidental, but it’s accidental on purpose,” said Prust, a former Ranger. “He did nothing to really avoid him.
“We’re in the NHL. We know how to fall, how to not put our skates first when we fall. He did the same thing against Fleury in the last series. It’s not totally intentional, but he doesn’t do anything to lighten it up a bit.”
“I reviewed the incident,” he said. “Obviously, it was an accidental contact, but let’s put it this way, he didn’t make much effort to avoid the contact.
“I’m sure the intention of the player was not to hit the goalie, but you have to try to do everything in your power to avoid contact and it’s tough to say if he tried everything to avoid that contact.”
Rangers alternate captain Brad Richards said Kreider was moving at such high speed there wasn’t enough time to minimize the collision.
“I’ve never seen a hockey player that can score an important goal on a breakaway but would rather run into a goalie,” said Richards. “I mean, he’s trying to score a goal.
“If you’ve watched him, he’s a pretty fast, big player. When he gets going, it’s hard to stop sometimes. It’s a split-second thing that happened. We’re trying to score goals and get ahead 3-0, not manufacture something like that. They can say that. They can think that. That’s their right, but we know how Chris plays. It’s a fast game out there. A lot of things can happen.”
Rangers coach Alain Vigneault made a little smile when informed that Price may be injured and said: “I’m sure Price is going to be there, so we’re getting ready for him.”
The series was billed as a rematch of the Sochi Olympic final, when Price bested Rangers star goalie Henrik Lundqvist as Canada beat Sweden 3-0.
The Rangers were all over the Canadiens in the opener on Saturday afternoon, catching Montreal flat-footed with a high-tempo game unlike anything they saw against Boston.
With New York up 5-1 in the third period, Prust went after Kreider, slashing him on the hand and giving him a cross-check. He was handed two minor penalties and a misconduct.
But the Canadiens don’t expect to be looking to avenge Price in Game 2.
“No, there’s too much at stake,” said Therrien. “We have to stay focused on what we have to do.”