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Canadiens get chance to show they're more than Price

by Arpon Basu

MONTREAL -- The Montreal Canadiens set out this season to prove to the hockey world that they are more than an adequate team playing in front of an outstanding goaltender.

They're now getting a golden opportunity to do that, though not one the Canadiens necessarily welcomed.

The news Sunday that goaltender Carey Price would be out for at least one week with a lower-body injury could not possibly be spun in a positive way. But for the Canadiens who have felt slighted by the idea that they would be lost without Price, this is a chance to put that narrative to rest.

The Canadiens began making that point in an emphatic way Sunday, defeating the Winnipeg Jets 5-1 behind 18 saves from backup goaltender Mike Condon to kick off a four-game homestand that also includes games against the Ottawa Senators, New York Islanders and Boston Bruins.

"We know what we're capable of," center David Desharnais said. "Every team has good players. We have Carey, the Penguins have Sidney [Crosby], the Blackhawks have [Jonathan] Toews. Everyone has their kingpin. So there's no doubt he helps us, but we're able to play without him. He's an important element of the team, but he's a part of the team.

"It's up to us to prove it, and I think we've done that since the start of the season. We're scoring more goals than ever, so I think we could get a little more credit. But that shouldn't take anything away from Price; he's our best player and we need him."

They do, but the Canadiens need him far less than they have in the past.

Montreal was 20th in the NHL in goals last season, the lowest-ranked offensive team to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs. This season, the Canadiens lead the NHL with 50 goals and are second to the Boston Bruins with 3.85 goals per game.

The victory against Winnipeg was Montreal's sixth this season by a margin of three or more goals, something they did 14 times in 82 games last season. The Canadiens have won once by a single goal, something they did 20 times last season.

The margin for error for Price, or whoever happens to be in the Canadiens net, is far greater now than it's ever been.

"We've got a lot of offense this year; I think we're a different team than in years past," forward Dale Weise said. "We've got four lines that can score, and that's something that we've never had before.

"We're not going to ask [Price] to win games 1-0 or 2-1 this year."

Weise, Desharnais and their linemate Tomas Fleischmann are a good example of why the Canadiens are better prepared to deal with a Price injury than ever before because of how productive they have been as a line. Fleischmann scored twice against Winnipeg, and Weise had a hat trick in the win against the Calgary Flames on Friday.

The Canadiens have the most balanced attack in the NHL; seven players have scored at least four goals, putting them all on pace to score 25 goals or more this season. No other team has more than four players who have scored four goals.

The common thread in the lines coach Michel Therrien has put together is speed, and he balances the ice time given to each of his lines in order to keep them fresh enough to pursue the puck all over the ice and pressure opponents.

St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock pointed out how difficult that is to face after a 3-0 Canadiens win in Montreal on Oct. 20, and Jets coach Paul Maurice did the same Sunday morning before seeing it firsthand.

"There's a slightly different defensive structure to their game in terms of how they track back, how they skate you down," Maurice said. "They don't give you a whole lot off the rush; very, very few odd-man rushes, if any. And they can do it going the other way, they can use that speed for the attack, straight lines and get to the net. A really strong skating hockey team. This is a really good defensive team as well."

In addition to the increased offense Montreal has produced, that relentless pursuit of the puck all over the ice has made it so the Canadiens give up fewer quality scoring chances and therefore lessen their reliance on their elite goaltender.

Center Tomas Plekanec expressed his frustration over the notion that the Canadiens are overly reliant on Price's abilities on Oct. 9, following a season-opening 3-1 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs in which Montreal was outshot 37-29.

At the time, it looked like this season's Canadiens were a lot like last season's Canadiens.

"You know what? I'm kind of sick of hearing that we're a team that's just about Carey," Plekanec said. "Obviously, he's the best goaltender in the world, we all know that. But should we feel sorry for ourselves that we play in front of him?

"He's a great goalie, but I think we're a better team than that. But we've got to show that. We've got to show that in the game that we're better. We've got to help him out a little bit more."

The Canadiens have done that since Plekanec said those words, but they also had the comfort of knowing Price was back there if they ever faltered. That safety net won't be there this week, so it should provide a good indication of where the Canadiens stand as a team independent of their goaltending.

It couldn't have gotten off to a much better start.

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