A win without all-star Carey Price was all the Montreal Canadiens were looking for Saturday against the then-Eastern Conference leading New York Islanders. Chasing former Habs goalie Jaroslav Halak? Mere icing on the cake.
First Time for Everything
Saturday night marked the first time in five tries the Habs beat Halak. They were 0-3-1 against him, his sparkling .960 save percentage against Montreal heading in destined for a severe beating thanks to the .818 one (27 saves on 33 shots) he posted in this particular 6-4 loss. More importantly, the Habs picked up the two points with back-up Dustin Tokarski forced into action, with Price injured.
Now, the Habs’ Atlantic Division rivals, the Tampa Bay Lightning, have the target on their collective back, three points up on Montreal in the standings with three more games played. Clearly, sheer points-percentage-wise, the Habs have the advantage to come out on top in the division. If they’re able to play the way they did on Saturday more often, they may even hold the edge in play.
Facing one of the top possession teams in the league, the Habs held their own and outshot the Islanders 35-31. It’s a slightly different story in terms of possession, however, with the Islanders earning a 56-50 edge in shot attempts at even strength during the game.
New York has earned a 53.6% Corsi for rating at even strength up to now, including Saturday’s game, making them the sixth-best team in that regard. As a result, consider it a moral victory (on top of the actual one), that the Habs were able to hold them to just 52.8%.
While the Habs would ideally be able to drive play to a greater degree than they do, Price is no more a crutch than John Tavares is for the Islanders. You let the star players be star players. That’s why the Habs, who get little to no respect in this league, are legitimate contenders when Price is healthy. And, when he isn’t… as the Islanders found out, they’re still dangerous.
Next Up: Canadiens vs. Predators
The Habs face the Central Division-leading Predators on Tuesday at the Bell Centre (7:30 pm Eastern), Montreal’s last contest before the All-Star Game next weekend. There’s no way of knowing whether Price will be ready for either. Knowing now what they can do when he isn’t healthy, they had best prepare as if he won’t be.
On the off chance this is Montreal’s way of preventing Price from having to go to the All-Star Game, it really couldn’t be working out any better. It’s however not a strategy without risks.
What Price getting “injured” a full three games before the break does is eliminate any potential doubt in the mind of the NHL that he actually is hurt, thereby allowing him to stay home without the threat of disciplinary action. It unfortunately also leaves the Habs exposed.
One need only look to the 4-1 loss to the Ottawa Senators the night after Price’s injury as proof to that effect. However, because Tokarski likely would have started anyway, it being the second half of a set of back-to-back games, this Islanders game was the first real test facing any kind of adversity this season for the Habs, last in man-games lost with 35.
The Predators will be another, if reports of Price missing practice on Sunday are any indication. However, with Nashville having lost their own Vezina Trophy candidate in Pekka Rinne, the Predators won’t be nearly as much of a challenge in theory. The hard part is over, even if Price is still unable to go come Tuesday.
If he’s not and the Habs come out on top then, Montreal will have earned four out of a possible four points without their best player, against two of the five teams with 60 or more points.
Of course, the Nashville game has yet to be played, and you shouldn’t count your chickens before they’re hatched. But there are at least definite positives, aside from the obvious, to be taken away from the New York victory in preparation for Tuesday.
For starters, the win wasn’t a result of New York underestimating Montreal. They had played the day before, and no one would have second-guessed head coach Jack Capuano for playing back-up goalie Chad Johnson (who ended up getting in anyway). The Islanders were also 6-1 when playing on back-to-back nights.
No, this was a simple matter of the Habs playing to their capabilities… and then making winning look like a piece of cake. Who says you can’t have some and eat it too?
— Canadiens Montréal (@CanadiensMTL) January 18, 2015
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.