The worst fears of the Montreal Canadiens and perhaps the whole of Quebec were realized Monday morning when the team revealed goaltender Carey Price was out for the remainder of the Eastern Conference Final.
Along with Price, the chances of the Canadiens winning this series are also gone, even with coach Michel Therrien employing the only tactic left at his disposal with his No. 1 goaltender on the shelf.
Price suffered a right knee injury when New York Rangers forward Chris Kreider lost his balance (either on his own or because of a trip by Canadiens defenseman Alexei Emelin) and crashed into the goaltender during the second period of Game 1 on Saturday. Price remained in the game but allowed two more goals before being pulled to start the third period in favor of backup Peter Budaj.
After the game, Therrien had this to say to reporters about Kreider crashing into Price: "I think it was accidental, honestly."
At practice Sunday, Therrien still felt the same way, for the most part.
Now that Price is out for the series, suddenly Kreider is a loose cannon who isn't intentionally injuring goaltenders, but one that doesn't mind if it happens.
This is the second time this postseason Kreider has collided with a goaltender, although the first incident with Marc-Andre Fleury against the Pittsburgh Penguins was clearly intentional. The circumstances were different, however, as Kreider was upright and shoved toward Fleury and delivered an elbow/forearm to nudge Fleury and the puck into the net.
There seems to be no video of that collision, but Kreider was guilty of hitting Fleury and received a deserved penalty because of it.
Last year, Kreider wiped out Ottawa Senators goaltender Craig Anderson, who suffered a lower-body injury as a result. The video shows, however, that Senators defenseman Marc Methot tripped Kreider, who slid into Anderson unintentionally.
So when you consider Emelin and Methot tripped Kreider, whose speed put him position behind those defensemen, is it Kreider being reckless that's resulting in these injures, or is it slow-footed defensemen putting their goaltenders in peril?
Therrien clearly sees the writing on the wall and is looking for anything to rally his team around Budaj and/or Dustin Tokarski for the remainder of the series. If that rallying point needs to be "Kreider is reckless and does this all the time," even when it's clearly untrue, then so be it. There's something to be said for refocusing a team in this way, so Therrien should absolutely try to spin this negative into a positive.
It doesn't change the fact this series is almost certainly over.
Therrien refused to name a starting goaltender in Game 2, but the options aren't very enticing either way.
Budaj, 31, is a career backup with next to no postseason experience, and what he has doesn't instill confidence. In seven games (199 minutes), he is 0-2 with a 5.13 goals-against average and .843 save percentage. He had a 2.51/.909 split in 24 regular-season games this year, and for his career he has a 2.76/.903 split in 296 games. He allowed three goals on eight shots in relief of Price in Game 1.
The poor resume of Budaj is what makes Tokarski the more intriguing option.
The 24-year-old Tokarski has just 10 games of NHL experience, but he made the most of his three appearances with the Canadiens when Price was recovering from an injury after the Sochi Olympics. Tokarski went 2-0 with a 1.84/.946 split, which included a 29-save shutout against the Buffalo Sabres.
It's a small sample size that doesn't show much, but he had quite the similar season to another goaltender who burst onto the scene in the postseason.
Tokarski's AHL numbers help his case for starting an NHL playoff game. In 41 games this season, he went 20-16-3 with a 2.38/.919 split. His .919 save percentage ranked eighth in the AHL, one spot higher than John Gibson, who took over for an injured Frederik Andersen of the Anaheim Ducks during the second round and acquitted himself well before crumbling in Game 7 against the Los Angeles Kings.
No matter what Therrien decides, this is akin to placing a Band-Aid over a gaping hole in a dam.
Price was the biggest reason the Canadiens were able to upset the Boston Bruins in the second round. The Canadiens were under siege throughout the series, but Price was there time after time. The Rangers play a similar possession game to the Bruins, which means Price would have had to be at a similar level in order to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
Now that responsibility will either fall to a career backup or an inexperienced fifth-round draft pick.
Either way, Price's injury signals the end of what was a terrific playoff run for the Canadiens.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveLozo.
All statistics via NHL.com.
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