Sitting seven points out of the final wild-card spot and having dropped four of their past five games, the last thing the struggling Canadiens needed was to lose one of their core players to injury for any significant period of time. But Montreal coach Claude Julien uttered the words few wanted to hear Monday when he said the Canadiens were going to be shutting down Shea Weber for “a little bit.”
This isn’t the first time Weber has missed time this season. In early November, he had a somewhat surprising absence from the Canadiens lineup ahead of a contest against the Minnesota Wild, and after returning to action two days later and subsequently skating in four straight games, Weber was again on the shelf. This time he missed five consecutive outings before returning to action at the beginning of December. After another six games, though, Weber’s injury hasn’t improved and the decision was made to get the bruising blueliner some rest.
"His situation is not getting better,” Julien said, according to NHL.com’s Kevin Woodley. “He's got an injury in the foot area that got better and then it gets worse again, so we are going to send him home and get him reevaluated."
As far as the timing of the injury goes, it’s possible there’s no better time than now for Weber to exit the lineup. The Canadiens are on a swing through Western Canada which will see them square off against the Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers over the next four nights, but that will be immediately followed by a three-day break. The worry, however, is that there’s no guarantee the week between now and the end of the holiday break will be enough to for Weber to be healed and healthy, and the indefinite tag attached to the rearguard’s injury isn’t going to put anyone in Montreal at ease, no matter how many days the Canadiens have off.
Not that any injury would be easy for the Canadiens to handle, but the loss of Weber is especially damaging for a team that already finds themselves one game below .500 with more than one-third of the season in the books. Beyond being the team’s top-scoring defenseman and sitting only three points off the team scoring lead, Weber has been as steadying a force as a team as unsteady as this season’s Canadiens has had. He’s been a workhorse, averaging 25:20 per game on the Montreal blueline, and has consistently taken on tougher competition than any other Canadiens rearguard. Weber also has the best possession rate of any Montreal defenseman and the best expected goals for percentage. He’s been a do-it-all defender on a team that has no other defenseman capable of saying the same. Thus, the difficulty now for the Canadiens is finding a way to stay afloat with Weber on the sidelines, and that’s an undoubtedly a tall task for a team that has underachieved this season.
Of course, some of the onus is going to fall on the rest of the blueline to cover for their fallen compatriot. It appears that, primarily, that responsibility will fall to Jeff Petry, who has been the unquestionable second-best defender in Montreal this season. Logging nearly 23 minutes per game and putting up strong possession numbers despite nearly even offensive- and defensive-zone starts, Petry is the next-best option Montreal has with Weber out. Additional minutes will then fall on off-season signing Karl Alzner, who has been a Julien favorite when it comes to defensive-zone faceoffs, and Jordie Benn, who is already logging more ice time than he has in any of the past three campaigns and is on pace for the best offensive year of his career.
Asked to step up most, however, might be netminder Carey Price. Long heralded as the best goaltender in the world, Price has been remarkably average this season. Through 21 games, Price, who is only three seasons removed from winning four pieces of end-of-year hardware, including the Hart and Vezina, has managed to post a mere .905 save percentage and 2.99 goals-against average. Among the 28 netminders to play at least 20 games this season, only four goaltenders have fared worse. It’s not as though Price’s numbers at 5-on-5 have been all that inspiring, either. Price included, there are 38 goaltenders with 500 minutes played at five-a-side, and Price’s .912 SP is the sixth-worst mark among them.
Now, that said, there’s reason to believe Price can be the one to guide Montreal out of the Weber-less darkness and back into contention. Reason being is that since his return from injury in late November, Price’s game has seemingly turned around. Despite his overall numbers, he has a 6-3-1 record, .935 SP, 2.14 GAA and one shutout in his past 10 games. At 5-on-5, he has been equally impressive. Per Natural Stat Trick, Price’s 942 SP ranks ninth at 5-on-5 among the 28 regular starters since his Nov. 25 return to action.
While Price’s play isn’t necessarily resulting in a brilliant record for the Canadiens of late, his ability to keep games close — and the likelihood that he can continue to do so — is at least affording a team with one of the league’s most feeble attacks a chance to win each night. Montreal is scoring a mere 2.61 goals per game, the fourth-lowest total in the league ahead of only the Vancouver Canucks, Arizona Coyotes and Buffalo Sabres, and the Canadiens are the only team without a single 20-point player in their lineup. That almost shocking lack of offensive output is why Price rediscovering Vezina form and the trio of Petry, Alzner and Benn stepping up will be most important when it comes to Montreal navigating through the Weber injury and coming out the other side in no worse a position.
If Weber’s indefinite timeline stretches past days and into weeks or even months, though, the unfortunate reality is there may be no number of game-stealing performances from Price or standout outings from the rest of the Canadiens rearguards that can turn the tide on a season that, simply put, hasn’t gone according to plan.
(All advanced statistics via Corsica, unless otherwise noted.)
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