Normally speaking you play the hot hand, and that would be goaltender Carey Price, but, for the Montreal Canadiens right now, nothing is normal.
Riding an unprecedented seven-game winning streak to open the season, the Canadiens face the Buffalo Sabres in New York State on Friday evening. The hold-up? The Habs play at home on Saturday night as well, against the Toronto Maple Leafs before a three-game Western Canada road trip.
So, if you’re head coach Michel Therrien, do you give Price an extra day of rest before playing him against Toronto, which is sure to be a physical game? Or do you play him on Friday and give him an extra day of rest before the Tuesday night game against his (kind of) hometown Vancouver Canucks?
The logical thing to do would be to give backup Mike Condon the weaker of the two opponents, but that’s almost like choosing between two nickels and one dime.
In one hand you’ve got a vastly improved edition of the absolute worst team from last year. However, the Sabres actually have one fewer point than the Leafs (entering action Wednesday night), who are expected to eventually contend for the title this year. And, not to mention, neither is generally worth so much as the measly effort usually exerted bending down to pick up spare change.
That’s perhaps the danger the Habs face entering their two games this coming weekend. On the surface, sure, they’re easy wins. But taking opponents for granted is in part what led the Canadiens to drop their last season series against the Sabres, a team that was tanking so hard they might have confused themselves for the North Bay Battalion—an Ontario Hockey League major junior team.
Needless to say, it’s not that simple of a decision. And, if a historic winning streak weren’t on the line, maybe no one would think twice in regard to Therrien’s ultimate decision. But, again, one is.
Canadiens vs. Sabres
Based on recent history dating back to last offseason—even including an unimpressive season-opening win over Toronto—Buffalo on paper promises to be the tougher opponent.
Regardless of the stature of a Saturday night game at home broadcast nationally on CBC, you have to give that start against Toronto to Condon and allow Price the opportunity to rest up an extra day for the Canucks, one of the top teams in the Western Conference so far.
Considering Toronto is also a team the Habs should have little difficulty getting up for—in the friendly confines of the Bell Centre no less—playing your No. 2 against the Leafs is just less likely to backfire. And, in his one start this season, Condon looked up to the challenge, allowing just a single goal a few Sundays ago against the Ottawa Senators, another Canadiens rival.
So, obviously, he’s at the very least capable of handling pressure. And, for a rookie Habs goalie, it doesn’t get much bigger than Hockey Night in Canada against the Leafs. If the streak is still alive come Saturday, it might mean even more. However, the best bet to even give him the chance to prolong it is to let Price play Buffalo.
Admittedly, no matter who gets the net on Friday, the Canadiens will be the favorites against the Sabres. They’ll be the favorites against the Leafs no matter who gets the net the following night as well. So, there are worse problems. Both their upcoming opponents have quite a few, potentially making them all the more desperate and dangerous come this weekend. They shouldn’t be taken lightly.