It’d be an overstatement to say the Canadiens are desperate for Carey Price to return, but Montreal might be inching ever closer to entering desperation territory. That said, the return of their superstar goaltender would help spark a turnaround.
When Price, 28, hit the shelf with a lower-body injury in late October, the Canadiens had a six-point lead atop the Atlantic Division. Montreal was able to stay afloat without Price thanks to some stellar goaltending from Mike Condon. By the time Price returned in mid-November, the Habs were nine points up in the Atlantic with nearly one-quarter of the season gone.
Price was only back for two and two-thirds games, however, before tweaking the injury that has since left him on the injury list for Montreal’s past 11 outings. The Canadiens were still up by seven points in the Atlantic and were on solid ground atop their division. That lead has crumbled, though, and the Canadiens are now heading into Monday’s game against Nashville.
Condon’s run when Price first hit the shelf was excellent, few will deny that, but his play since Price went back on the IR has been lacking. When Price left Montreal’s Nov. 25 game against the New York Rangers, Condon boasted a 2.16 goals-against average and .916 SP. Over his next nine full outings, those numbers have slipped to 2.43 and .903, respectively. Not surprisingly, Condon has won just two games over that span, but hasn’t picked up a victory since Dec. 1.
Dustin Tokarski, who the Canadiens recalled with Price sidelined, hasn’t been much better for Montreal, either. In five appearances this season — four of which have come since Price was injured for the second time — Tokarski has a 2.95 GAA and .893 SP.
But it’s not just the goaltending that has struggled. What had kept Montreal afloat early in the season was that they were giving Condon — and Price, while he was healthy — goal support. Before Price’s most recent injury, Montreal had 48 goals for at 5-on-5, good for second-best in the NHL. Only the Rangers, with 51, ranked higher. Montreal was shooting a healthy 8.6 percent at 5-on-5, but were due for a slight regression as they had a 102.2 PDO — shooting percentage plus save percentage, a total that usually sits near 100 by season’s end.
Well, regress the Canadiens have. While the goaltending has struggled, the offense has been just as bad. Since Nov. 27, Montreal has the second-worst shooting percentage in the league at 5.1 percent during 5-on-5 play, the second-fewest goals for 5-on-5 with 14 and the league’s second-lowest PDO at 96.1.
Where do the Canadiens really belong then? The easiest answer is somewhere between the team we saw at the beginning of the season and the hapless group that we’ve seen over their past dozen outings that can seem to catch a break. Realistically, though, the Canadiens turnaround is probably coming sooner rather than later.
Even during their bleakest days of the past month, Montreal has been a top-tier possession team. During this awful period of sub-par PDO — something that can usually be seen in teams that lack strong puck possession — the Canadiens have had the third-best possession numbers in the league. Since Nov. 27, Montreal has a 55.2 shot attempts for percentage at 5-on-5. That’s third-best in the NHL. For the season, Montreal is fourth-best at 53.1 percent at 5-on-5.
Montreal doesn’t desperately need Price back because they’ve still got room, however slim, atop the division. There’s no sense in rushing his return. The goal for the Canadiens isn’t to win the regular season, it’s to end the year as the last team standing. A healthy Price makes that increasingly likely, as does dominating the possession game. Are the Canadiens struggling? Yes. Is it bound to last? No. And when Price comes back, the Atlantic Division will be put back on notice.
(All advanced statistics via War-On-Ice)