Playing it safe can actually be pretty risky, as Montreal Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien is likely about to find out, as he goes with No. 1 goalie Carey Price against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday (7 pm Eastern in Toronto).
Carey Price Check
Two days after breaking the franchise record for wins in a season with his 43rd against the Detroit Red Wings, Price will indeed start in Toronto, Therrien announced Friday.
This despite having played 65 games this season and being the main reason the Habs are where they are in the standings, in the Atlantic Division lead, just a few points back of the Presidents’ Trophy-winning New York Rangers.
Needless to say, the conservative man would rest his star goalie, give him a well-deserved night off in order to rest up for the playoffs. Maybe even the smart man.
That isn’t to suggest Therrien hasn’t thought this through, at least in his mind. He probably has. And his reasoning might go something like this:
The Canadiens have spent the entire season battling it out for first place in the division. It only makes sense to see things through to the end, especially with the Tampa Bay Lightning able to catch up with a win (and a Habs loss) Saturday night. Playing the No. 1 goalie gives Montreal the best chance at winning both against the Maple Leafs and the division.
All of that is technically true. I mean, he personally would probably have added in something about Dustin Tokarski sucking or something. And one can argue about the “it making sense” part, but for the most part Therrien would be right. Playing Price does almost guarantee the Habs a victory on Saturday and in turn a division championship.
However, it’s all about winning the Stanley Cup.
All Work and All Play
Forget the argument about Price needing to rest up for the playoffs if you must. Saturday’s game will amount to his third game in seven days, and that doesn’t even take into account the start of the playoffs, which would likely be next Wednesday. So, if that ends up being the case, that would make it four games in 10 days.
As a result, playing Price on Saturday may not necessarily constitute overworking him (that is, if you’re discounting the 65 games he’s played up to this point). It is needlessly exposing him to injury, however. And the Habs need Price for a long playoff run. He’s the main reason behind their success, after all.
While the Maple Leafs are a bad team—there is absolutely no sugarcoating that fact or denying it—they are also the Maple Leafs. Habs and Leafs go together like oil and water, except oil and water don’t tend to come together after every whistle by a net.
Sure, the Leafs are a broken bunch, weighed down by a season of disappointment. They still have pride. And, because they’ve clinched the fourth-worst record in the league, it’s not like they have anything to gain by losing.
In fact, consider this: The Leafs actually have the exact same record as the Habs over the last six games. Ignoring shootout and overtime losses, both teams are 3-3. And the Leafs’ three wins? They are over the hottest team in the league in the Ottawa Senators (twice) and one over the team the Habs are currently battling for first in the Atlantic in the Lightning.
(In all actuality, they are both the same 3-5 over their last eight, but this way Saturday’s game almost makes it like a Game 7 for both teams, with it obviously being the closest thing to an actual Game 7 the Leafs are likely to see for years).
All this to say, the Leafs are actually trying and there’s no good reason they won’t be trying extra hard on Saturday.
One can argue that all makes Therrien’s decision to not go with backup Tokarski all the more viable (if you choose to ignore the potential for injury, which can come on any play). However, the way things are shaking out in the Eastern Conference, a win might be the last thing the Habs want.
There is every reason to believe the injury-riddled wild-card Pittsburgh Penguins would be Montreal’s ideal first-round opponents. However, with the Pittsburgh Penguins losing to the New York Islanders on Friday night, what was once a foregone conclusion (assuming a division championship) is now much less likely.
The ninth-place Boston Bruins are one point out and need to win against the Lightning tonight for any kind of chance at making the playoffs. The eighth-place Penguins, who would face the first-place New York Rangers were the playoffs to start today, need to beat the Buffalo Sabres tonight to clinch and for a chance to move up and face the Atlantic Division winner (potentially Montreal). But just a chance. Their fate in that regard is out of their hands.
The seventh-place Senators meanwhile, who are 20-3-3 in their last 26 games—coincidentally since beating the Canadiens on February 18—only need to beat the Philadelphia Flyers, whether in regulation or overtime or a shootout, in order to win the first wild-card spot (assuming relatively safely the Red Wings can earn at least a point against the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday).
Seeing as the Flyers are, well, the Flyers, and Ottawa winning these days is akin to the sun coming up in the morning, not only are the Habs essentially playing for a chance to face a team against whom they’re a decisive 1-3 this season, but also a potential first-round exit. Yay!
Not only that, but, were the Habs to lose tonight (and the Lightning to beat Boston), in the first round instead they would face the Red Wings—with mediocre goaltending and a winless record against Montreal this season—for all intents and purposes saving the Senators for the Lightning, who are 5-0 against the Habs.
Now, no one is suggesting the Habs purposely lose against the Leafs. These are professional hockey players we’re talking about. But Therrien stacking the deck in their favor, exposing Price to potential injury in the process? It seems like kind of overkill just to win a division that means very little in the grand scheme of things.
The Canadiens will play to win tonight as they always do. Then they will play to win come the playoffs no matter their opponents. However, it could ironically be Therrien’s playing it safe that does them in, in the end.
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.